HICKSVILLE, NY — Leah vividly remembers the day she was hospitalized. She was living in her Chevrolet Nova hatchback with her 19-year-old son when she suffered a heart attack. He called 911. She woke up in the hospital.
After doctors stabilized Leah, she faced another challenge — counselors wanted to get her off the street and into a nursing home. While many might’ve jumped at the chance, Leah refused. She knew that would mean she would have to leave her son.
Instead of sending her back on the streets, staff told her there might be a different option. A new program specifically designed to help people who, for one reason or another, frequently visit hospital emergency rooms and are in need of stable housing.
Best of all, her son would be able to stay with her.
“That worker came to my room like an angel,” a choked-up Leah told Patch last week. Patch is not publishing her last name due to the sensitivity of the story.
The staff was talking about a new affordable housing pilot program by UnitedHealthcare in partnership with Central Nassau Guidance & Counseling Services, or CNG, and Long Island Federally Qualified Health Centers.
The units are leased through CNG and UnitedHealthcare provides funding for the units to be leased. LIFQHC, meanwhile, is responsible for choosing a panel of doctors, nurse practitioners and clinical social workers who determine who is eligible for the program. They review people who identify as being homeless or housing insecure, then recommend people they feel would be able to get the most out of the housing program.
UnitedHealthcare has invested over $400 million over the last eight years to build more than 80 affordable-housing communities across 18 states, a spokesperson for the company told Patch. Those communities provide about 4,500 affordable homes for individuals and families, including seniors, military veterans, people living with disabilities, and people struggling with homelessness.
On Long Island, housing sites are leased through CNG and include free access to vital services such as peer-support, mental health care, primary care providers and even job development assistance.
There are five housing units within residential areas in Nassau and Suffolk counties, in Farmingdale, Hicksville, Holbrook, Merrick and Copiague. Individuals began moving in May 1.
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UnitedHealthcare works closely with CNG to use internal data and a referral system to choose residents who are homeless and have had multiple emergency room and inpatient hospital stays.
Once the patients become residents, they pay a certain, affordable monthly amount. UnitedHealthcare works with its housing vendor to negotiate that amount, which covers housing and support services.
For Leah, who goes to dialysis a few times a week and is on disability income, she’s expected to pay $253 a month. She moved into a clean, fully-furnished two-bedroom apartment in Merrick in June. The unit came with a bed, dresser, nightstand, sofa, coffee table, kitchen table, fridge and stove. She even has a parking spot, and the organization gave her comfortable sheet sets, towels, food and cleaning supplies.
She said she wasn’t given a deadline to move out. The main rule: she can’t have anyone else living in the unit other than her son. Grinning ear-to-ear, remembering how she felt moving in for the first time, Leah acknowledged she was just elated not to sleep in her hatchback another night.
“I just moved in. I didn’t care what it looked like. It could’ve had holes in the roof, I didn’t care,” she said.
At a news conference announcing the initiative, she thanked the organizations that helped her and pleaded with them to help others in the same position. She remembered crying uncontrollably for days after hearing the news.
“To have a place of your own after being homeless in the cold, sleeping in the car,” she recalled as she teared up. “We were washing up outside … I thank you. God bless you. Continue to help others who need you guys because I know I still need you.”
Pat Celli, CEO of UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of New York, said affordable housing is the future of dealing with the nation’s health care crisis and soaring costs.
“This is a time to celebrate,” he said. “It warms our hearts. This is why we come to work every day.”
The program is about helping people live a healthier life, he said, noting that 80 percent of health is driven by housing, food and transportation.
“Those are the three linchpins,” Celli said.
Access to affordable housing is a barrier to getting better healthcare — people who don’t have basic needs such as shelter and food often don’t think about going to the dentist or primary care doctor for a check-up, he said. And the number of people without access to safe, affordable housing is around 18 million nationwide.
On Long Island, the organization invested $200,000 for five units to house 10 people.
“I’m proud of this partnership,” said Celli. “I know well grow it from here.”
Two other people, identified at the press conference only as Gerry and John, said they had also moved into units.
Gerry said just a year ago, he had no place to sleep and was in the grips of battling alcoholism. He was also facing five years in prison at the time.
“My life was a mess,” he said, adding that he sought treatment and detoxed.
Now he wakes up and has hope for a brighter future. After seeing what it’s like living at homeless shelters — where people rob and steal from each other — Gerry said he’s getting his life back together.
“It all starts with I have a safe place to live,” he said, adding that he has a foundation now and is seeking gainful employment.