For Immediate Release: Houston, TX; December 11, 2023
For University of Houston researcher Dr. Ben King, the idea of shedding light on the complexities of Houston’s homeless population is an intrinsic passion for him.
“When we focus on ending homelessness, it’s tough,” King said. “Prevention on the front end is the best answer to that, but it is the hardest to identify and the hardest to predict. This has been a passionate area of research for me for decades. It is so massively complex that there is not a single answer to a lot of this. Then again, there is one big solution that we know works – ’housing people helps them get out of homelessness.”
Through a pilot research grant, King and his research team are analyzing new opportunities for overdose interventions in Houston’s homeless community. His project is entitled, “Identifying Opportunities for Interventions to Prevent Overdose Deaths associated with Homelessness." The initiative was awarded $50,000 through HEALTH-RCMI [P.I. Dr. Ezemenari Obasi]. King is a Clinical Assistant Professor with UH’s Tilman J. Fertitta Family College of Medicine.
King’s project is especially crucial and timely since overdose fatalities are on the rise in Houston’s unhoused population, according to a report now being generated annually by King’s lab. According to a key study cited by the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, individuals who experienced homelessness were nine times more likely to die from an overdose than those who were stably housed. More than one million people have died due to overdose deaths since 1999, and opioids have been involved in 75 percent of the overdose fatalities, according to the CDC.
“The death rate has gone up, even while Houston has done a phenomenal job – maybe the best in the country – at reducing the homelessness during the last 10 years,” King said. “Yet, over the last 10 years, what we’re seeing is a huge spike in deaths – and that’s being driven by overdoses or what some people call ‘deaths as despair.’ It is a devastating situation when you look at the numbers.”
Through King’s initiative, a series of focus groups will be organized for treatment providers and community members. Focus group participants will be discussing the impact factors involved in toxicity deaths among the homeless community across Houston. Much of the unhoused community’s feedback will be based upon their own past lived experiences or current experiences.
“We will take the data to the community and try to understand where the system worked, where the system failed. They have valuable information,” King said. “We will do the same thing for treatment providers, to get an understanding of where the gaps are.”
King echoed that the rise in toxicity deaths is not just linked to one neighborhood of Houston. It is a pervasive problem throughout Harris County.
“These deaths are happening all over the city,” King said. “I did not expect to see a distribution all over Harris County, but it is really like a checkerboard. It really is not just a downtown problem, but it’s also in the Med Center and on FM-1960, on the border of Fort Bend, along the Shipping Channel. It is really a surprise to me how decentralized it is. Understanding the geography will be a big part of our approach and trying to overlap the data with where the deaths are occurring.”
To integrate all meaningful perspectives in this research project, King has collaborated with several Houston agencies, including Coalition for the Homeless, Houston’s Council on Recovery, Harris Center, Harris County Public Health and New Hope Housing.
“In Houston, we’re doing a great job housing individuals,” King said. “We must keep that work up. We’ve been focused on closing encampments and getting people in encampments in housing. I’m interested in how we protect and preserve the lives of people until they can get into housing and that involves incorporating harm reduction and treatment programs.”
King explained that misconceptions about homelessness are myriad, and the unhoused community is often misunderstood. This is what motivates King to better understand the complexities of homelessness.
“These are incredibly resilient people who have incredible internal resources and few external resources,” King said. “If we give them a little bit of externality for support, those internal resources will take over and they will do much better than if we expect them to get clean on the street before they get housed. Housing First is about trusting someone. If you expect people to get clean first before they get housing, you will have the worst rates of recovery.”
As King emphasizes, homelessness does not kill people, per se – not the economic circumstances of having a house. Yet, there are other exposures that are associated with homelessness, such as environmental and behavioral exposures that can have a devastating impact.
"It is becoming my platform to break apart and try to understand the drivers and impact on health,” King said.
Looking back at his career, King said that the one piece of sage advice that truly resonated with him came from a fellow researcher.
“He said – If you want to get involved in research, do one thing – find something that pisses you off, and then try to understand it,’” King said. “Understand how a system works and look at what is failing. From a public health standpoint, look at the people experiencing homelessness and say, ‘why isn’t the system working at that point? And start at that point. All of that makes sense to me. This is where people need help – and the problem pisses me off, so I keep looking further into it.”
– Alison Medley
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