The Big Issue

Following all the arctic antics and farmyard fun on the blog this week I’m sorry to say that today we turn to a more sombre theme, but do not fear, there is science in our midst (see below).

For many of us here at Imperial College, our morning hike through the South Kensington tunnel is made slightly more exciting by the anticipation of who this mornings busker will be and the hope that they will be ‘I-pod pausingly’ good, a rare but savoured experience. Much more reliable than these touch-and-go serenades was the friendly face of Martin the Big Issue seller, who never failed to spark up a conversation and spread some of his cheeriness to the stony faced passers by. Sadly, having worked near the South Kensington campus for nearly 10 years, Martin died of a heart attack earlier this week. His community spirit and contagious smiles will be sorely missed.

Many who live, work or study around South Kensington will have come to recognise Martin but few are aware of his history and the fact that we have more in common with him than we perhaps realised. A graduate of the University of Aberdeen, Martin’s early life was not so different to the hoards of students and professors who traipsed passed his makeshift stall on a daily basis.  Spending the last ten years of his life selling ‘The Big Issue’, which exists to offer a legitimate source of income to the homeless and vulnerably housed, Martin teaches us that pursuing a higher education degree is certainly no safe guard against the possibility that we may need to rely upon the charity of others in our future.

This weeks sad news and these realisations led me to the results of a scientific study published this week in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, a study I perhaps normally would have glossed over without a second thought. Though the results are perhaps not groundbreaking, it is the first study of its kind and so merits a wider audience. Led by Travis P. Baggett MD of the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), the USA wide survey investigates the scientific link between food scarcity amongst the homeless and their likelihood of hospitalisation. More specifically, the study analyzed survey data from 966 adult respondents to a nationwide (USA) Health Care for the Homeless User Survey. It emerged that one in four respondents battle with food scarcity, a proportion six times higher than in the general population. More than two thirds of these respondents often go at least twenty-four hours without food.

Those respondents who had reported not having enough food to eat were at a much higher risk of being hospitalised in a medical or psychiatric unit than those who did not report food scarcity as an issue. The homeless who fail to find enough food to get by were also likely to be frequent users of emergency rooms. According to the study, conducted by scientists and investigators from MGH and the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, these relationships between food scarcity and hospitalisation could not be simply explained by differences in individual illness. In the year preceding the study nearly half of the food-deprived homeless had been hospitalised and one third had used an emergency room four or more times in this same year.

Baggett, inspired by his previous clinical experience of giving healthcare to the homeless, stated:

“Homeless patients with inadequate food may have difficulty managing their health conditions or taking their medications. They may postpone routine health care until the need is urgent and may even use emergency rooms as a source of food. Whether expanding food services for the very poor would ameliorate this problem is uncertain, but it begs further study.”

He is right to want to pursue this issue further. With food a basic requirement for survival, the plight of the hungry homeless deserves attention. Though a scientific study is perhaps not necessary to realise the health risks of not finding enough food to eat, the emergence of these facts and figures may hopefully revitalise an effort to reduce the problem of food scarcity on our streets. Though this issue has been brought closer to home this week, the plight of the homeless is evidently an issue that needs addressing, Every small insight into what the problems are and how to solve them should be given, at least, a second thought by both science and society as a whole.

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