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Notre Dame can't be more urgent than people without food and shelter

Notre Dame can't be more urgent than people without food and shelter
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The recent empathic and generous worldwide reaction to rebuild and restore Notre Dame Cathedral within five to six years following the fire in the 900-year-old cathedral is criticized as ambitious, but unrealistic.

Many have reacted to the efforts with skepticism, prompting consideration of so many other disasters not given as much attention and even more ongoing adverse human conditions that plague communities worldwide that need urgent attention, financial help and awareness.

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People may be eager to support restoring Notre Dame, in part, because structural restorations may be viewed as being more feasible, long lasting and visible when compared to critical issues such as world hunger and homelessness.

Addressing the issue of chronic hunger and homelessness requires a much longer time commitment with results that are not easily measurable, visible or longstanding.  Even so, there are movements in place to end hunger and homelessness giving us hope that these problems do not need to last forever.

As nurses, we have both spent our careers dealing with issues that impact the well-being of individuals and the larger community. We witness hunger and homelessness as both urgent local and global problems that require a collective spirit aimed at rectifying these problems.

And while we are not global policy experts, as nurses we are committed to helping people realize their fullest health potential. Hunger and homeless are barriers to achieving this goal and demands that we use our voices and collective advocacy to eliminate hunger and homelessness.

Nurse leaders across the country are integrating these factors into the nursing curricula and are exposing students to the numerous social needs of those that they are being educated to serve.

At our institution, we have integrated a social needs assessment tool into our electronic records as a means to better identify patients with unmet social needs including food and housing. Staff conduct a social needs assessment of patients upon admission to identify any unmet social needs.

If patients are identified as being in need of food, shelter, or other social services they are linked to the appropriate resources. The Food Surplus Program at Rush is focused on addressing the needs of patients that are food insecure. If patients are deemed to be food insecure, we work with an interdisciplinary team to provide a month’s supply of food to patients upon discharge and ensure that patients are linked to resources for food and housing resources if needed.

It is a problem throughout the country. Hunger impacts millions of American’s every year. According to the U.S Department of Agriculture in 2017, 88.2 percent of U.S households experienced food insecurity throughout the year and 11.8 percent of households experienced some food insecurity during the year. One in six households with children experienced food insecurity in 2017.

Although rates of food insecurity vary across the states, food insecurity is highest for single mother households.  Food insecurity tends to be higher in states including Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Mississippi, New Mexico, Indiana, Ohio and North Carolina when compared to the rest of the country.

Government and non-government agencies, public and private organizations, schools and churches are among the many entities working to address food insecurity in America. It is not enough.  

In 2019 Walmart and Sam’s Club initiated Feeding America, a campaign to fight hunger. Shoppers can purchase an item (s) for distribution to a local food pantry or they can directly donate money to a local food pantry of their choice.  

From a global perspective, eliminating world hunger is one of the 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Goal 2 -Zero Hunger pledges to end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture by the year 2030, a priority of the World Food Programme.

The notion that worldwide 821 million or 1 in 9 people go to bed hungry each night speaks to the urgent need to find solutions to this problem now. Eradicating hunger is critical to securing our economy, improving the health and livelihood of individuals and communities worldwide as well as protecting the planet.

We see firsthand that hunger and health are deeply connected. Obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, exacerbation of chronic illness and extended stays at hospitals are some of the outcomes resulting from hunger and malnutrition.  

Individuals lacking an adequate food supply are at risk for a host of health issues and certainly cannot progress on their health journey without stable housing. Homelessness demands our immediate and collective action as so many homeless individuals are in plain view in most of our urban and rural communities.

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According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness in 2018 approximately 552,830 people experienced homelessness. This equates to approximately 17 out of every 10,000 individuals in the United States.

In Chicago, homeless sleep on sidewalks, under bridges and in doorways of major businesses. We frequently encounter people carrying signs asking for food or financial donations to help fund shelter for the night.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) recently introduced the Ending of Homelessness Act of 2019, a legislative proposal aimed at ending homelessness in America by proving emergency relief funding and investing in essential housing programs and initiatives for those in need. his too will take time to work its way through the legislative and appropriations process.

Estimates reveal that almost 2 percent of the worldwide population is homeless. In Paris, activists protested the speed of the response by billionaires worldwide pledging to restore Notre Dame, while many of the working class in France are struggling to pay their bills. Homeless activists expressed their discontent that the wealthy could pledge within 24 hours to restore the cathedral roof while many of the homeless themselves need a roof over their heads.

As nurses who have taken care of hundreds of people, we have seen firsthand the adverse effects of homelessness and hunger on health outcomes. Individuals and families lacking these necessities consistently experience poor health outcomes due to their inability to properly take care of their personal health and well-being. Often they are unable to engage in health promoting activities.

The rush to save an iconic monument such as Notre Dame cannot be any more urgent than the need to invest in the lives of people who need food and shelter.

Perhaps this is a symptom of people offering a worthy response to an immediate, finite, fixable need. Perhaps the view many have is that hunger and homelessness are forever problems, existing since the dawn of time and inevitable, without a resolution.

It would be prudent for the  United States  and other world leaders commit to eradicating hunger and homelessness in five to six years. Perhaps we could focus on the notion that these global crises of hunger and homelessness are solvable and can be fixed, with as much effort, commitment, urgency and intention as the structure of Notre Dame.

As a global society perhaps it’s time for a more focused assessment of our core values and commitment to humankind. Without such reflection, those most in need will remain invisible and overshadowed by those things that are a beauty to behold.

Aney Abraham, RN, DNP, is the associate vice president of nursing operations at Rush University Medical Center, an associate professor at Rush University College of Nursing. Janice Phillips, RN Ph.D., is an associate professor at Rush University College of Nursing and the director of Nursing Research and Health Equity at the Rush University Medical Center. Both are Public Voices fellows through The OpEd Project.