GARFIELD PARK — Renaissance Social Services is creating an outreach and case management team dedicated to housing West Siders who are experiencing homelessness and struggles with mental health.

The outreach and case management team will expand Renaissance’s role in the Flexible Housing Pool, a partnership between local government agencies, hospitals and nonprofits to provide safe, affordable housing for people who rely on emergency services.

The team will allow Renaissance to find people with behavioral health issues who often cycle through hospitals’ emergency rooms and “meet them where they are at” so they can access resources from the Flexible Housing Pool to “get them an apartment today,” said Michael Banghard, executive director of Renaissance Social Services.

“The idea is to engage them whenever they show up. If they show up at the ER, if they show up at a shelter, they’re being engaged by our outreach programs,” Banghart said. “We’ll be able to engage with them at the hospital and hopefully get them into housing that day.”

Case management and behavioral health services are critical for those participating in the Flexible Housing Pool since people who are unhoused are especially vulnerable to physical and mental health issues, Banghart said. Unhoused people also tend to lack access to primary and preventative care, so they end up relying on emergency treatment or forgo treatment, Banghart said.

“The longer somebody is homeless, the more likely they are to experience trauma, to develop behavioral health symptoms, and the more likely they are to have worse health outcomes. If they have a condition, it will get worse. It will become chronic,” Banghart said.

Housing costs are funded by the Flexible Housing Pool. And since the team being developed by Renaissance will focus on people with behavioral health needs, the case management and outreach services will be funded in the long run through Medicaid.

An $80,000 grant from the Polk Bros. Foundation will pay for start-up costs that will allow Renaissance to operate the program until they receive Medicaid reimbursements to sustain the expanded services.

More than half of participants in the Flexible Housing Pool have a behavioral health condition, according to the program’s data. The added behavioral health services will assist families in meeting needs beyond housing and will prevent them from “returning to homelessness,” said Divya Mohan Little, program officer for Polk Bros. Foundation.

“People experiencing homelessness in Chicago with chronic physical and mental health issues often cycle in and out of emergency rooms and nursing homes and jails … because homelessness is criminalized … and because we do not have adequate behavioral health services,” Little said.

This approach can also reduce the hidden costs of housing insecurity and a lack of affordable housing on all of society, Banghart said.

“The general public believes they don’t cost a lot of money because they’re living on the street,” Banghart said. “In actuality, because they don’t have access to primary health care, food security and they don’t have a roof over their head, they end up using the highest-cost services offered by society instead of preventative.”

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