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Three hospitals team up on $3m plan to help low-income families pay the rent

Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Brigham and Women’s Hospital. (Timothy Tai for The Boston Globe.)

Three big Boston teaching hospitals are launching an initiative to help families facing eviction, collectively acknowledging the strong connection between stable housing and good health.

Together, Boston Medical Center, Boston Children’s Hospital, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital plan to spend about $3 million over three years to fund housing programs through grants to community organizations. The first $1.5 million is slated for families struggling with unstable housing, including those behind on rent payments and at risk of eviction.

The initiative reflects the growing recognition in the health care industry that such issues as housing, education, and food play a critical role in a person’s health — and in health care costs.

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BMC, Children’s, and the Brigham are all required to devote money to community initiatives as a condition of state approval for large construction projects underway at each of their campuses. All three hospitals decided to focus on housing.

“Housing is a significant challenge for lots of vulnerable populations in the city of Boston, and a lot of those vulnerable populations are our patients,” said Wanda McClain, vice president of community health and health equity at Brigham and Women’s.

“If you don’t have housing, it’s hard to focus on other things,” she said.

The unusual three-way partnership began with BMC. The safety net hospital — where an estimated 10 percent of patients are homeless or living in unstable housing — committed in 2017 to spending $6.5 million on housing programs over five years. Children’s Hospital and the Brigham later joined BMC to create the new Innovative Stable Housing Initiative. Organizers hope the effort eventually expands to include other hospitals.

“Affordable housing is the number one concern that we’ve heard,” in Greater Boston, said Dr. Megan Sandel, a pediatrician and associate director of BMC’s Grow Clinic, which treats children.

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“We can provide the best medical care possible — but if you’re homeless or housing unstable, you’re not going to be able to meet your health potential.”

Research by Sandel and others has shown that children, in particular, face health issues and developmental delays if they lack a safe and stable home.

The Massachusetts Medicaid program, which provides health coverage for low-income families, is also pushing care providers to address social and economic issues, including housing, to help prevent serious and expensive medical problems in their patients.

BMC, Children’s, and the Brigham are funding programs that help struggling Boston families who are behind on rent so they can avoid eviction. A relatively modest amount of money, about $1,500, often can help a family avoid homelessness.

More than 4,600 eviction cases were filed in Boston Housing Court in 2016, the most recent year for which data are available, according to city officials. Most involved tenants in subsidized housing.

“The hospitals are making an exceptional statement that housing stability is a primary social determinant of health,” said Matt Pritchard, president of HomeStart, one of the first organizations to win a grant from the hospitals. “It’s going to allow us to prevent a lot of evictions.”

City Life/Vida Urbana will use the hospitals’ donation to provide legal aid to families at immediate risk of eviction, and to help families pay rent or other urgent expenses, such as utility and medical bills.

These efforts are expected to help stabilize the homes of 75 families, said Lisa Owens, executive director of City Life.

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Casa Myrna, which works with survivors of domestic violence, expects to stabilize another 85 households.

The organization plans to use the hospital grant, in part, to pay housing-related expenses that typically aren’t covered by other sources of funding — such as broker fees for people searching for a new apartment and rental trucks for those moving to a new home.

“Rents just continue to rise in Boston, and it’s getting harder and harder for people to maintain housing,” said Stephanie Brown, chief executive of Casa Myrna.

Dr. Shari Nethersole, executive director for community health at Children’s Hospital, said it’s important for hospitals to study the impact of their donations as they develop strategies for combating housing instability.

“The hospitals don’t think they’re going to fix the housing problem,” she said. “We recognize this is a societal problem. We’re trying to help identify where we do have a role, where we can help.”

Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at priyanka.mccluskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @priyanka_dayal.