The Health Advocacy Clinic (HAC) is a medical-legal partnership with Aunt Martha’s Health and Outreach Center as well as Hesed House, the second largest homeless shelter in Illinois. Most of our clients are homeless. The ones who are not consist of low-income members of the community who struggle with poverty. Whether our clients stay in public housing or at Hesed House, they share one thing in common: their lives are stressful in a way that many of us cannot begin to comprehend.
HAC clients frequently experience stress trying to secure basic needs such as shelter, food, and safety. The effects of such stress can have long-term effects on their bodies and overall health. “The longer the stress lasts, the worse it is for both your mind and body.”1 Many of our clients are considered chronically homeless, which requires that they have been homeless for at least a year or have been homeless at least four times within the last three years and have a disability, and have therefore been subjected to the harmful effects of chronic stress.2 Although Hesed House provides its guests with a safe place to spend the night and three meals a day, guests are on their own during the day. Walking the streets of Aurora, they may become victims of crimes that threaten their safety simply because of their status as a homeless person. If they are disabled, physically or mentally, they may be perceived to be less likely to fight back during a physical attack, robbery, or sexual assault. Additionally, guests may be unable to find stable employment, which will prevent them from earning the funds necessary to escape homelessness.
The HAC works to secure Social Security Disability benefits for our disabled clients. Our work is necessary because of the strong link between homelessness and disabling conditions. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, “people living in shelters are more than twice as likely to have a disability, compared to the general population.”3 Even if a client’s disabling condition did not cause their homelessness, the condition certainly was not improved due to the chronic stress the homeless face. For example, a client of the HAC came to Hesed House with back pain problems. After having to spend every night sleeping on a mat on the floor, his back pain has become so severe that he walks with a cane and is being referred for spinal surgery. The disabling condition does not have to be physical; mental illness can be worsened by the stress of homelessness as well. A former client of the HAC struggled daily with managing several mental health diagnoses while staying at Hesed House. Now that she has been granted Social Security Disability benefits and was able to move into her own apartment, she is able to function in society much easier.
At the HAC, a student will learn the relationship between chronic stress and medical conditions. They will see how a controllable disease such as asthma or high blood pressure can be worsened to the point of disability by the chronic stress associated with homelessness. For HAC clients pursuing Social Security Disability, the condition must be disabling enough that the client will be unable to work for 12 months or more. A law student can attest to the fact that stress can have a negative impact on the human body, but it is the HAC clients who can show you how devastating chronic stress can be on every aspect of the human life: physical, psychological, and emotional.