(I know it’s the holiday season and I promise I’m not actually a grinch, but here’s your warning: This is going to be kind of a bummer of a post.)
Some recent scenes for your consideration:
The sliding wooden gate did nothing to dampen the sounds of traffic on the boulevard. Inside the wooden gate was a parking lot that was now occupied by around 40 small sheds, each painted a different color. At one end was an open-air shared kitchen and a set of small bathrooms. It was snowing, the kind of wet, clumpy snow that doesn’t stick, but instead seeps immediately into clothes, hats, and sleeping bags. Though people in this “village” are still technically homeless, they were at least protected from this unusual Seattle weather. Within a few minutes of my arrival, a skinny kid, maybe eight or nine years old, wearing a sweater, shorts, and sandals, ambled outside alone to look up at the sky. Later, another skinny kid, maybe thirteen or fourteen, came out, his hands shoved into the pockets of his sweatpants and his eyes fixed on the ground. I wondered what their ACEs scores were and hoped that, as adults, they would escape and remain out of homelessness.
As I threaded my way through the city and the morning chill, I kept a mental tally: One man wearing a tank top and making grand gestures at the sky; another shirtless man pacing in tight circles; one woman wearing a soiled hoodie, with either black ink or a black substance smeared across the bottom half of her face, picking up trash from water pooled in the gutter; a man hobbling with a cane and screaming a melody; a man emerging from a collapsed tent to fold up a crinkled black tarp; a woman with bare legs and swaths of bright green caked on her eyelids who, in slurred speech, offered me a wristwatch dangling from her fingers.
I do believe that hope is a discipline. It’s hard to practice every day. But this is why I still question whether my expectations were too high. God spared us—you, dear reader, and me—during this pandemic. For what reason? What can and should we do with the gifts of our lives?
In trying to think through this myself, I turn to two mental models: First, what problem are “we” trying to solve? Second, can health care ethics provide guidance here?
What problem are “we” trying to solve? This requires reading the mind of New York City Mayor Eric Adams, which I cannot do. He has argued that The Royal We have a “moral obligation” to solve the problem of “assist[ing] those who are suffering from mental illness”. If we take him at his word, then we can fold his argument within the framework of medical ethics.
If, however, Mayor Adams is trying to solve a different problem (e.g., make homelessness invisible; reduce the number of complaints from the public about people exhibiting unusual or dangerous behaviors; demonstrate that he is “doing something” about homelessness, etc.), then the framework of medical ethics may not apply. If he is trying to solve a different problem, then instead of assisting those who suffer from mental illness, he is using those who suffer from mental illness to assist him and his actual agenda.
Of course, he may be trying to solve multiple problems through the guise of only one.
Can health care (or medical) ethics provide guidance here? One model used in medical ethics is called the four box model. Of note, the four boxes focuses on individual patients, not on populations of people.
Medical Indications (Beneficence and Nonmaleficence)
Patient Preferences (Respect for Autonomy)
Quality of Life (Beneficence, Nonmaleficence, and Respect for Autonomy)
Contextual Features (Justice and Fairness)
Medical indications asks what benefits and harms the patient might experience from interventions. Would involuntary psychiatric hospitalization help people with mental illness who are homeless? Some of them, yes. Would it help all of them? Maybe, maybe not. Could involuntary psychiatric hospitalization cause harm? That is not the intention, but sometimes it does. For reasons valid and invalid, it might discourage people from engaging in psychiatric services ever again. Anything involuntary always involves some degree of coercion, which people generally dislike.
Just because people are behaving in unusual ways and are living outside does not mean that psychiatric hospitalization is guaranteed to “fix” them. I do not mean to diminish the care people receive in psychiatric hospitals. People often need more than involuntary psychiatric hospitalization to get and stay well. Sometimes there is no medical indication for psychiatric hospitalization (involuntary or otherwise) for people with mental illness who are experiencing homelessness. Sometimes they just need a stable place to live.
Patient preferences refers to the dignity and choices people should have in living their lives. Some people would rather take pills by mouth every day than receive a monthly injection of medicine. Some people would prefer not to take any medicine at all. Patient preferences matter.
Some people who are living outside and behaving in unusual ways may not want to be in a hospital. Or maybe they are willing to be in a hospital, but not at that moment—maybe they have other things to take care of that day. Or maybe they are only willing to go to certain hospitals on their own, not at the behest of law enforcement. By definition, involuntary removal of people from the streets disregards patient preferences. Options other than psychiatric hospitalization, such as crisis centers, partial hospital programs, or day programs, can help preserve patient preferences and hence their dignity.
Quality of life describes the patient’s quality of life. Interventions should provide benefit, minimize harm, and maximize the dignity and choices of patients. This does not refer to the quality of life of the general public. If involuntary removal and psychiatric hospitalization are the means to the end of improved quality of life, how can these improvements be sustained following hospitalization?
It is absolutely true that psychiatric hospitalization can be life-saving and life-improving. However, people need and benefit from ongoing care and services following hospitalization. Mayor Adams’s target population also need places to live to maintain their gains. If you’ve ever been hospitalized for any reason, can you imagine the course of your recovery if you had no place to go upon leaving the hospital? How are you supposed to rest when you don’t know where you will sleep that night? Quality of life requires planning and sustained care; acute interventions alone rarely produce improvements in quality of life.
Contextual features are the intersections of a patient’s care with the rest of the world. There are a multitude of contextual features in Mayor Adams’s plan (and it makes me wonder if the mayor consulted with any partners prior to making his announcement). Here are a smattering of contextual features that come to my mind:
How will first responders decide if someone has a mental illness? What if they think someone has an “attitude problem” and instead refers them to jail? How severe do psychiatric symptoms have to be? Will only those who attract the attention of law enforcement be involuntarily removed? (What about the elderly woman who keeps to herself and has been homeless for decades and won’t move indoors because the voices tell her that she will die if she does?)
How will hospital psychiatrists react to people who, in their professional opinion, do not need hospital-level care, though the law argues otherwise? Will psychiatrists become agents of social control on behalf of the jurisdiction? There are some parallels here to the overturning of Roe v. Wade: Some gynecologists are not performing abortions, even though there are medical indications to do so, because of the law. Here, psychiatrists may proceed with involuntary treatment even though there are no medical indications to do so… because of the law.
Let’s say someone experiencing homelessness is involuntarily removed from the street and is psychiatrically hospitalized. Where will they go upon discharge? What if they prefer returning to the street instead of a shelter? What if they have no sources of income and there is insufficient affordable housing? (This is not actually a “what if” question.)
What about all the people who are homeless, but do not demonstrate symptoms of mental illness? Are there any opportunities to prevent or reduce the chances of mental illness in this population? (Yes, by increasing access to stable housing.)
What about all the people with severe mental illness who are not homeless? Are there any opportunities to prevent or reduce the chances of homelessness in this population? (Yes, by increasing access to and flexibility of psychiatric services.)
The four box model here highlights some ethical problems with Mayor Adams’s plan, though there are solutions to increase beneficence, autonomy, and justice while reducing non-maleficence. My hope is that Mayor Adams and leaders of other jurisdictions with similar ideas will take heed.
(1) Omicron and other COVID variants: ongoing and potentially severe disruptions to health care, social, economic (supply chain), and educational systems caused by the Omicron (and potentially other) variant(s).
(2) Children, youth, and young adults: concerning behavioral health trends for children, youth, and young adults.
(3) Collective grief and loss: not just related to the loss of individuals, but social and systemic losses as well.
How do we reconcile the three areas of focus above with the three lines in the graph? Are the people in the top yellow line experiencing collective grief and loss? Is it just a matter of degree across the three lines, depending on how much people have lost?
While wondering about this, I came across this article: How Epidemics End. I was surprised to learn that this article was published two thousand years ago in June of 2020. Vaccines weren’t even available at that time. (It’s hard for me to believe that it was only just over a year ago that I received my second Covid vaccination.) The tag line summarizes a major point in article: “History shows that outbreaks often have murky outcomes—including simply being forgotten about, or dismissed as someone else’s problem.”
Of course pandemics don’t just abruptly end. The authors note that “epidemics are not merely biological phenomena. They are inevitably framed and shaped by our social responses to them, from beginning to end”. They then describe societal reactions to the 1918 flu pandemic, the 2002 SARS epidemic, and the adoption of the polio vaccine. There is no “singular endpoint”; rather, epidemics end:
when there is “widespread acceptance of a newly endemic state” (like HIV)
“not when biological transmission has ended… but rather when, in the attention of the general public and in the judgment of certain media and political elites who shape that attention, the disease ceases to be newsworthy” (like polio)
when the new disease in question emerges abruptly, rather than gradually (like Legionella and tuberculosis)
In forecasting the end of the Covid pandemic, they comment:
At their best, epidemic endings are a form of relief for the mainstream “we” that can pick up the pieces and reconstitute a normal life. At their worst, epidemic endings are a form of collective amnesia, transmuting the disease that remains into merely someone else’s problem.
That brings me back to the third line, the lowest line, in the graph above. It is not with pride that I recognize that I, along with many of my colleagues, are following the course of the lowest line. It also brings me no satisfaction to acknowledge that the Covid pandemic will likely end for the majority of people in the US before it ends for those of us who work in and use safety net programs, such as emergency departments, homeless shelters, and immigrant and refugee clinics. (When I consider the consequences for other nations, the weight of sadness feels great: There are many people around the world who want to receive a vaccine, but still have not gotten their first dose. The pandemic will also continue for them after it has ended for many others.)
Back in December 2020, I counseled myself:
For those of us in the third line, it has become more difficult to answer either question with confidence.
Though the room layout follows pandemic guidance, it still feels crowded.
Dozens of beds are placed six feet apart. In a homeless shelter, each twin mattress is multipurpose furniture: Yes, it is a bed where people sleep. It is also a table upon which they eat simple meals stuffed into brown paper bags. It is a living space of 38 by 75 inches that offers no privacy and no isolation.
Say someone living in the shelter falls ill with Covid. Should this person be allowed to stay in the shelter, but risk infecting others? Or should the shelter ask this person to leave and recover in the chill and darkness of January?
Seattle-King County has been a leader in implementing isolation and quarantine (I&Q) sites for people who don’t have their own place to live. These are hotels that allow people who were exposed to or infected with Covid-19 to rest and recover away from others. The hotels have specialty staff who provide physical and behavioral health care. Once recovered, people can return to shelter or similar congregate settings. It is difficult to prove the success of prevention, though removing people from congregate settings likely reduced infections. This, in turn, reduced hospitalizations and deaths.
Last winter, there were four I&Q sites. This winter, there are only two.
This reduction isn’t for lack of need. As with the general population, the omicron variant has caused a crush of infections in shelters. The I&Q sites, like most health care agencies, cannot hire enough people to provide services. This reduction in I&Q sites is entirely due to an insufficient number of staff.
Because fewer health care workers now work at the I&Q sites, the county has had to enact more exclusion criteria to preserve this service. Providing support for people with multiple health conditions requires professionals with expertise and experience; physical space and supplies are not the only considerations.
This means that people living in shelters who are ill with Covid will be denied admission to I&Q sites.
That means that people who are sick with Covid may only have bad options to choose from. If they’re lucky, they may be able to stay in a shelter. However, their living space of 38 by 75 inches has no walls. Sights, sounds, and air are all shared.
The average age of someone experiencing homelessness for the first time is now 50 years old. People who live in shelters, cars, or outside are more likely to have chronic health conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, and anxiety. These conditions are risk factors can result in more severe cases of Covid illness. These same factors also increase the risk of disease and death if people are sent outside.
With the attrition of health care and essential workers, the burden of illness and disease will fall upon the most vulnerable people in our communities.
This also means that staff who are still able and willing to work at the shelters–all essential workers–are at increased risk. Most shelters do not have access to medical expertise or consultation. If there is nowhere to send people who are ill with Covid, shelter workers will have to decide what to do if someone in the shelter gets sick. We cannot expect all shelter staff to have the skills, knowledge, and desire to provide isolation and quarantine support. If shelter workers send someone out, that will only put more burden on the safety net of first responders and emergency departments. This safety net is already fraying and breaking after two years of crisis.
Systems cannot rely on single individuals, though this has been happening more and more as the pandemic has dragged on. As various systems falter and crumble, we see the demoralization and exhaustion of all who provide essential services. More distressing are the detrimental effects these system failures have on vulnerable people we want to serve well, but cannot.
This is unfair to all involved. Inside and outside of the crowded room of the shelter, it is with horror that we realize that all of our options are bad.
Our hospitals have not been spared. They, like in other areas, are in a crisis situation:
There are similar surges in Covid cases in homeless shelters and other congregate settings. This, combined with an insufficient number of people who are willing and able to work at isolation and quarantine (I&Q) sites, has led the I&Q sites to limit the number of admissions. The admission criteria now are the most stringent they have been at any point during the pandemic:
What this means in practice is that people living in shelters who are sick with Covid may have nowhere else to go. If they are lucky, they will be able to stay in the shelter. Their only other option may be staying outside in the chill and darkness of January.
Which is worse? Covid infections sweeping through a homeless shelter? Or people exiled outside because they are sick? (They may end up seeking help at an emergency department, all of which are already strained and overburdened.)
To be clear, I do not blame the county for this. Health care workers are fleeing their jobs due to the crush of the pandemic. Everyone is struggling with hiring health care and essential workers.
We cannot look away from the horror of systems faltering and failing. We must witness that the most vulnerable people in our community will bear the greatest brunt of these failures.