Experts shared how health is correlated to housing at a forum held at Malcolm X. College on Nov. 7, 2023. | Francia Garcia Hernandez

Unhoused people ages 24 to 44 are nine times more likely to die than those who have houses, research shows.

Overall, people experiencing homelessness live 27 years less than those who are housed, said Thomas Huggett, physician and medical director of mobile health at the Lawndale Christian Health Center. 

Yet homelessness among Black Chicagoans — who make up about 70% of the people experiencing homelessness in the city – persists, said Brandi Calvert, vice president of housing for the Center for Housing and Health.

The shocking figures come from a forum last week run by Wellness West, a Chicago-based health collaborative. “Bridging the Equity Gap: A Wellness West Discussion on Health and Housing” brought together leading experts to discuss how housing – or the lack of it — affects West Sider’s health, and to explore how affordable housing and collaboration among agencies and social services providers can improve those conditions.

 How housing impacts health 

Studies show that lack of housing increases the risk of hospitalization, infectious disease and pregnancy complications, Huggett said. 

“Pregnant women, they are particularly vulnerable if they’re experiencing homelessness,” Huggett said. 

They have twice the risk of having heavy bleeding, preterm labor and other complications. 

On the other side, health can impact people’s ability to find housing or stay housed. Adults with disabilities are four times more likely to lose housing, Huggett said. 

Those who are housed can also see impacts to their health if their housing conditions are inadequate, a reality often faced by low-income communities. These can include such things as pests and mold, triggers that can lead to respiratory and infectious diseases or exacerbating asthma symptoms. 

Unhoused children and youth are impacted for life

Children and adolescents experiencing homelessness have unique needs that need to be prioritized, medical experts said. 

“Everything that is happening to them, good and bad, is carrying with them, said Sadhana Dharmapuri, interim chief of the division of adolescent medicine at Cook County Health.

A 2021 Center for Disease Control and Prevention survey found 2.7% of U.S. high school students were unhoused or had unstable housing. Yet, the numbers could be higher as the numbers only include results from youth in grades 9-12 who participated in the survey. 

Children and youth are most often dependent on their parents or guardians, who have a direct impact in their ability to be housed or have stable housing. Therefore, conditions that affect adults such as parental unemployment and domestic violence can also place children at risk of homelessness. 

Homelessness can have adverse health effects for children and adolescents. Unhoused children and adolescents at a time when they are also at higher risk of experiencing food insecurity, malnutrition and obesity, studies show. Homelessness also increases the likeliness of children and adolescents to be exposed to violence or become victims of violence, Dharmapuri said. 

What is most worrying, medical experts added, is that all of these risks can affect children and adolescents when their brains are still growing and developing.

Therefore, any negative impacts in early childhood and youth, can affect adult health. 

“Everything that a child experiences during this time, positive or negative, affects their adult brain,” Dharmapuri said.

The need for systemic change

Chicago is not the only city in the United States affected by homelessness, driven by the lack of affordable housing, said Marisa Novara, vice president of community impact for The Chicago Community Trust. 

The former commissioner of the city’s Department of Housing said the cost of housing drives the rates of homelessness in major cities. High costs of housing, paired with insufficient of affordable housing units, drive the homelessness crisis. 

“We have a120,000-unit gap in the number of affordable units that we need as a city versus the number that we have,” she said. “And that’s very real in the lived experience of our neighbors.”