Lower costs, increasing care — and ending cycle of homelessness

University’s Elnahal on Georgia King Village project: ‘We want this to be a self-sustaining initiative’

It’s easy to see Georgia King Village in Newark, the latest New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Financing Agency program, as a means to transfer care.

After all, one of the key components of the village, a 78-unit project that will include a health clinic run by University Hospital, is to slow the revolving door of homeless residents at the hospital.

Shereef Elnahal, the CEO of University Hospital, sees it another way. This is about (first) transforming care — and then (second) finding a way to eliminate the need for care. Then — and only then — will the project be successful, he said.

“Homelessness is both the cause and the result of their health conditions in a really cyclical way,” he said. “And, really, the only way to end that cycle is to house folks and allow them to get a new start.

“First of all, you have access to individuals and opportunity to provide health care more readily if they’re in stable housing. That’s why we’re going to be setting up a clinic in the Georgia King Village building.

“And, secondarily, we can also assist with setting folks up with social services. Georgia King Village will have programming for their residents on a number of issues, including job placement.”

The program, which was announced Wednesday morning, is still years away from completion. Organizers say construction is anticipated to begin this summer and will be completed by the spring of 2023.

Elnahal admits he wants to get started today, but the extra time will help all involved select the homeless individuals that will be housed in 12 units set aside for them. Getting the right individuals, he said, is key to growing this pilot to other parts of the city, the state and even the country.

“Patients will be selected very carefully, based on our assessment of how much their homelessness specifically is leading to their continued emergency room visits and admissions,” he said. “That’s important not only because you want to pick the folks for whom housing will be exceptionally helpful, but also because you can prove a return on investment more readily.

“Ultimately, we want this to be a self-sustaining initiative. And the only way to do that is to be able to approach our insurance company partners and demonstrate that this is worth their investment and support — and to expand it even further.

“So, we’re starting with about a dozen units that we’re going to be using for housing. But the real exciting thing is that we also have a clinic that we’re setting up that will be accessible to all Georgia King village residents, not just the people experiencing homelessness. And we think that’s really important, because we’re going to have a footprint there and everybody can benefit from that footprint.”

Elnahal said housing is the ultimate prescription for health care. Providing that may help people escape the revolving door of care.

“We want to make sure that we care for folks to a degree that they depend on the emergency room and the hospital less and less,” he said. “That’s the entire value proposition to payers. I think this is a way to begin demonstrating that.”

Quantifying progress will be harder.

“The way these things work is that folks either end up thriving, get a stable job and ultimately proceed to pay for their own housing unit or apartment elsewhere — or we continue to support them as long as needed in that unit and, over time, expand the number of supportive housing units we have,” he said.

“We have to look at this as an opportunity, expand this footprint and never contract it.”

How big can the program get? Elnahal said it’s too soon to say. Georgia King Village, he said, is just the first step.

“What we’re doing is proving the model,” he said. “And where that model can be sustainably funded and reimbursed, that will be the key to scaling it elsewhere.”