Better health care for Anchorage’s most vulnerable benefits us all

“When it comes to your health, your zip code matters more than your genetic code.” — Dr. Tony Eton.

Does this surprise you? Your personal choices and where you live have a greater effect on your health than the biological make up of your cells. There is much research to support this. Fresh air and water, access to healthy food, availability of a place to safely sleep and ease of access to basic preventive health care all play a role in your health.

People experiencing homelessness typically have limited options in finding basic necessities we take for granted. We see that first hand at our shelters here in Anchorage. When you do not know where you will sleep, it is easier to let health problems fester. There are more immediate needs to take care of, so that sore that has not healed for days, or that ongoing cough will always come second to safe sleep and dinner. It is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: First you take care of the basic needs — food, warmth and shelter — and then other needs. Often, health is secondary until it leads to an emergency.

Basic needs are chosen over health care needs every day at Brother Francis Shelter. We at Catholic Social Services are not alone. Hospitals, health care providers, EMTs and others working in this field see it too. It’s heartbreaking and frustrating because we see the solution but can’t connect the dots.

The Healthcare and Homelessness Partnership identified and is addressing this issue. This groundbreaking partnership aims to address homelessness and health needs in Anchorage. Together, Catholic Social Services, Brother Francis Shelter and these partners — Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, Alaska Regional Hospital, Providence Health & Services Alaska, Southcentral Foundation, Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center and the Municipality of Anchorage — have come together to improving health for those in homelessness, take pressure off our health care and EMS providers, and get people into permanent housing.

Addressing these issues will start with opening the Respite Program at Brother Francis Shelter for people discharged from the hospital who need time to rest and heal (discussed in last month’s issue). Additionally, this partnership expands clinical services to our guests at Brother Francis Shelter — a game changer for the shelter.

The Caring Clinic at the shelter has been around for decades, operating largely in the evenings, staffed by amazing volunteer health care providers who offer an array of services.

The expanded services will consist of a regular health care provider operating five days a week through Southcentral Foundation, in addition to the evening volunteer clinic. Now all shelter guests may seek basic primary health care during the day.

Your zip code still has a larger influence on your health than your genetic code. We can address that by increasing access to basic health care for the most vulnerable men and women in our community. That change, for some, will be the difference between homelessness and permanent housing, because their health caused them to be homeless in the first place.

For others it will not be that dramatic, but we hope their quality of life will improve. It may help them in their ability to get work, reconnect with their family or other life-changing acts.

Offering daily health care services at the shelter will improve our health care and emergency services systems across Anchorage. This partnership between Catholic Social Services and Southcentral Foundation will improve the lives of many people. Bold actions, based on evidence and science, must be taken if we are going to make a difference in our world.

We would like to thank Southcentral Foundation for their service to our community. Thanks also to our clients at Brother Francis Shelter for working with us to navigate the pathways to self-sufficiency and success. Thank you finally to every person who gives, volunteers, prays and believes in our guests and services at Brother Francis Shelter. We love you.

The writer is executive director of Catholic Social Services in Alaska. For more about CSS, call 222-7300 or visit

'Better health care for Anchorage’s most vulnerable benefits us all'
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