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How a healthcare company plans to fight homelessness

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Kaiser Permanente is investing $200 million to house Americans

Kaiser Permanente is known for well-designed community healthcare centers, like its award-winning San Diego Medical Center.
Photography by Tom Bonner for CO Architects

Efforts to combat the country’s homelessness crisis will get a financial boost from one of the country’s biggest healthcare providers—Kaiser Permanente is investing $200 million in affordable and supportive housing across the country.

The announcement was made last week by the Oakland, California-based nonprofit, which serves 12 million members in eight states and Washington, D.C. By focusing on making housing-based investments in those markets, the healthcare company estimates it will positively impact the well-being of 65 million U.S. residents.

The investment makes sense, as Kriston Capps argues at CityLab, because “housing is healthcare.” Chronically unhoused residents can cost cities hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in emergency room visits and short-term care. This is why cities are focusing on new strategies to permanently house their most vulnerable residents, including integrating comprehensive healthcare services.

Many of the communities Kaiser Permanente serves are also seeing the nation’s highest rates of housing insecurity and homelessness, including California, Washington, and Hawaii, noted Dr. Bechara Choucair, Kaiser Permanente’s chief community health officer, in a statement.

“As a family physician, I’ve provided medical care to the homeless, and have seen first-hand the impact that living without a home can have on someone’s health,” said Choucair. “To improve the health of an entire community we must step beyond the four walls of our hospitals and medical offices to help those most in need.”

Kaiser Permanente is part of a coalition named the Mayors & CEOs for U.S. Housing Investment, which made a commitment earlier this year to find more ways to fund affordable housing due to the lack of federal support and cuts to the grants and subsidies that many cities rely on to build permanent supportive housing.

Kaiser Permanente will be addressing the crisis from both sides, by “preventing displacement or homelessness of lower- and middle-income households in rapidly changing communities” and by “reducing homelessness by ensuring access to supportive housing.”

As a developer, Kaiser Permanente is an experienced and prolific builder, with 680 healthcare facilities nationwide. In California, for example, it is one of the state’s biggest architecture patrons, according to the AIA’s California Council, and is known for commissioning sustainable, considerate design.

In addition, Kaiser Permanente’s track record for effective preventative public health initiatives is well-documented. The company’s Every Body Walk initiative, launched in 2012, has been credited with bringing attention to pedestrian safety issues and helping cities design more walkable communities.

Putting housing development in the hands of healthcare providers also may help avoid what has become a major issue in communities concerned about displacement. Wary of large developers and their intentions, groups have formed to oppose new projects that do not include subsidized units which would be affordable to existing residents.

If more locally trusted healthcare companies like Kaiser Permanente could step up and become partners for the new housing that’s being proposed for American cities, especially in communities where its employees are already aware of and addressing equity challenges, these developments may be more likely to be embraced.