WILMINGTON — When most people think of the affordable housing crisis they think high rents, costly utility bills, and the lack of homes in the Wilmington area — but at New Hanover Regional Medical Center (NHRMC) overall health plays its own role.
Scott Whisnant serves as the administrator of community relations at NHRMC and on Thursday morning at City Hall, he offered attendees at the Cape Fear Housing Coalition’s 2019 Housing and Legislative Breakfast a look into just how healthcare affects housing.
Clinical care has obviously the biggest role the hospital plays in the community, but healthcare is more than just emergency surgeries and caring for the sick.
“A lot of the money goes to really good clinical outcomes once you get sick or injured but that is where all the focus of our healthcare has been historically,” Whisnant said.
Whisnant is hoping to see a change in focus to addressing the bigger aspect of healthcare and that is something he calls the ‘housing first’ policy.
Take, for example, someone with respiratory problems. Mold in the home can cause a wide range of problems including respiratory issues, so addressing the issues at home can actually help prevent the need for costly medical treatment.
“A lot of people who are chronically sick don’t have a place to live, [maybe] they are sleeping in a car and this is causing constant problems. That is what we need to get better at addressing,” Whisnant said.
Hunger and housing: Why food deserts hurt and how can they be addressed?
Addressing hunger and nutrition is also something NHRMC is working towards, something Whisnant calls ‘using food as a prescription.’ By using food as a prescription the hospital can better help those with diseases like diabetes and other nutrition-related problems without ever having to treat them in a clinical setting.
But the lack of healthy food and accessibility to grocery stores is nothing new in Wilmington, especially for residents living in food deserts.
Related: Food deserts in the Cape Fear region: what and where they are, and how to combat them
“Currently, NHRMC is working with residents on the Northside, a neighborhood that has been a food desert for 30-plus years and see if we can get a grocery store over there. That is a new venture for a hospital and were trying to desperately not to own this grocery store … What if that grocery store became our pharmacy? What if that is where we went with a voucher or prescription if you will to fill a food prescription? These are the types of things we are starting to consider,” Whisnant said.
For Whisnant, if food is medicine, then housing is healthcare policy.
“We have a website … OurCommunityLink.com, it’s a website you can go on and find referrals for social agency help in any number of areas … we tracked the types of request that come in and there have been 20,000 since June, in the last three months housing has been 30-percent of the requests,” he said.
This number has naturally been exacerbated by the destruction caused by Hurricane Florence, but Florence did not create a need for housing, only highlighted it.
“You have homeless children … before the storm in New Hanover County you had about 400 homeless kids and after the storm, it almost tripled, almost 1,200 … Pender County went from less than 100 to more than 1,000,” Whisnant said.
People might think there is an abundance of housing in the Cape Fear Region, but that is not the case. Even with the new homes and apartments being built, a considerable number of people seeking housing, especially affordable housing, are not able to find it.
“We have many reasons to address housing as a policy, the policy you have to adopt is housing first. Historically housing has been “awarded” to people who get off drugs, who get a job, who get through XYZ. But the message we have is you’re not doing any of that until you have a house,” Whisnant said.
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