This June, I spent two weeks in rural Uganda as part of my graduate studies in public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I traveled with eight other students and faculty to work in a private health clinic called Engeye (www.engeye.org). During our time there, we conducted interviews and focus groups in the surrounding villages, surveying people about their access to health care and challenges they face in staying healthy. It was a wonderful opportunity and I learned so much about the Ugandan health care system and the particular challenges and strengths of a very rural and very poor country.
You may wonder how, or if, this project relates to my work at the Lincoln Park Community Shelter. There are more commonalities than you would think! Traveling to a developing country has only reinforced my belief that health and housing are inextricably related. You simply cannot have one without the other. Stable, decent housing is essential to maintaining good health; our Community Clients, who often live on the streets, have the hardest time maintaining a connection to regular health care and taking care of their own basic health and hygiene needs. Similarly, good health is essential to maintaining housing; one of our current Guests became homeless because the mold in her dilapidated apartment was making her too sick to stay.
Similarly, in rural Uganda, housing and health are closely related. One of the biggest health problems plaguing the patients of Engeye Clinic is persistent malaria, especially affecting children. Although no vaccine is yet available, one effective preventative measure is to sleep under a bed-net, in a house with screened windows, to prevent mosquito bites. Another persistent problem is gastro-intestinal bacteria and parasites that cause disease – a result of lack of clean water and insufficient sewer systems. In the communities where I was working, the quality of housing was very much affecting people’s health! Similarly, if you are consistently cycling between wellness and health, it is difficult to work the fields and earn money to improve your housing.
Another similarity is the innovation of using mobile technology to reach those who need services the most. In rural Uganda – where over a 1/3 of the population owns cellular phones, and most have access to one (despite having no electricity or running water) – volunteer community health workers are using cell phones to send SMS messages to the government Ministry of Health on a weekly basis – recording the number of births, deaths, and other statistics and allowing real-time data for the first time. Here in Chicago, technology is becoming increasingly important as cell phones and internet become more widely available, even for those who are homeless. Libraries offer free internet access, and the U.S. government has a program to provide free basic cell phones to those who qualify. Enrollment for housing wait lists is increasingly virtual, and most people even find LPCS through the Internet these days. Online applications and resume postings have long been the standard for job searching, and new smartphone technology is even tracking open positions to connect job seekers more quickly (check out www.kauzu.com). In this way, mobile technology is becoming a sort of equalizer, empowering those in poverty to access information and resources that would otherwise be unavailable to them.
As Uganda – like many developing countries – urbanizes (more and more people are moving into cities to seek work), housing quality will become even more essential as density increases faster than the infrastructure can handle. Already, I saw many people sleeping outside on the streets of Kampala, including children. Regardless of where in the world this scene occurs, it is unacceptable. My recent work in Uganda and my daily work at LPCS have a common goal: a world where everyone has a roof over their head and a basic guarantee of safety in order to fulfill their potential.
By: Erin Ryan, Executive Director
At the source of the Nile River, Jinja, Uganda