The following article published by the Harvard Chan School of Public Health (HSPH) discusses the origins of the School’s Initiative on Health and Homelessness (IHH), a one-of-a-kind pilot program that was launched in 2019. BHCHP’s President Dr. Jim O’Connell, senior steering committee member of the initiative, works closely with Dr. Howard Koh who established the HSPH program after recognizing the lack of academic study on this subject matter within public health schools. According to Dr. Koh, “Jim is one of the foremost leaders in the country on health and homelessness. Harvard wants to give more academic attention to this issue and having Jim’s incredible wealth of knowledge is invaluable to the formation of this initiative.”
In addition, BHCHP’s Maggie Sullivan, FNP, DrPH and Jill Roncarati, ScD, PA-C, are IHH instructors teaching the course “Homelessness and Health: Lessons from Health Care, Public Health, and Research”. . The IHH program has grown its scope of work to accommodate rising interest among students, faculty, and community members. We are honored to partner with the HSPH on this initiative and hope you will take a moment to read the article to learn more.
When Howard Koh was Massachusetts’ public health commissioner two decades ago, he watched in horror during a brutally cold January as 13 homeless people literally froze to death on the streets of Boston. “I’ll never forget it—there was tremendous media attention about every death. Outraged advocates stormed state government and demanded to know who was responsible for responding to the crisis and what we were doing to address it,” remembers Koh, Harvey V. Fineberg Professor of the Practice of Public Health Leadership at Harvard Chan School.
The answer, he learned, was no one and nothing. “There was no system, no responsible entity, no dedicated office,” he says. So Koh urgently established and chaired an emergency task force, supported by a coalition that included his longtime colleague Jim O’Connell of Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program (BHCHP), to deal with the immediate problem of cold exposure. But the larger issue of homelessness has persisted since then, receiving inadequate attention. Even as Koh became U.S. assistant secretary for health in the Obama administration, he was troubled that national efforts failed to coordinate a system between hospitals, housing officials, mental health professionals, and the prison system. “This crisis has haunted me for decades,” Koh says. “Why isn’t there more of a unified governmental and societal effort around confronting and preventing this unacceptable problem?”
After returning to Harvard Chan School, Koh helped establish a pilot program in 2019 called the Initiative on Health and Homelessness—the first of its kind at a school of public health. “This is my highest priority these days,” he says. Its steering committee includes O’Connell, along with Senior Associate Dean Nancy Turnbull, and faculty members Karen Emmons and Natalie Slopen. “Academia regularly tackles complex, seemingly intractable health challenges—HIV/AIDS, cancer, and COVID-19, for example—to heighten societal attention, advance understanding, and offer options for evidence-based policy action,” Koh and colleagues wrote in a recent call to action in Public Health Reports. “Yet academia routinely overlooks homelessness, one of society’s most pressing health crises.”