What Does it Really Mean to be “Vulnerable”?

By | Mar 25, 2013

Homeless man in tunnel.Vulnerable.

It’s a word we often use to describe the clients our programs target—individuals who have serious health, mental health, and substance abuse challenges; who are frequent utilizers of hospitals and emergency rooms; and who are at high risk of dying on the streets. Veterans, seniors, families, and youth also often fall into that category.

But, when we’re talking about more than 650,000 homeless people in our country, what does “vulnerable” really mean?

“Vulnerable” means the 78-year-old blind veteran who was homeless for 30 years. He passed away after just three months in his new apartment, a victim of cancer that went undiagnosed while he lived on the streets.

The only family he listed on his hospital forms was his case manager from PATH, who ultimately tracked down his estranged family. They were grateful to know that he passed away with dignity, no longer homeless.

“Vulnerable” means the father who lived under the 101 freeway with his 19-year-old son. He worked to recover from alcohol abuse, both he and his son found decent jobs, and they moved into their own apartment. But 25 years of severe alcoholism ultimately caused liver failure, and he passed away five months after moving into his new home.

The community had rallied around this family, and the proud father died knowing that his son was going to school, had a home of his own, and had a chance at a better life.

“Vulnerable” means the man on the street who had nowhere to go but the emergency room to address his declining health. In just two years, this man went to the hospital as an inpatient 16 times and to the emergency room 14 times. Once this man was connected with case managers who worked to connect him with the regular primary and preventive he needed, his health improved, his visits to the emergency room drastically decreased, and he was able to move off the streets.

This man was one of thousands suffering, unseen, on the streets. Fortunately, case workers were able to find him and help him before his health problems became too severe.

He was one of the lucky ones.

“Vulnerable” means the people on our streets who need help now. It means making the greatest possible impact with the resources we have.

Vulnerability indexes, overseen by the 100,000 Homes Campaign, help agencies like PATH identify and prioritize those people on the streets who are considered the most vulnerable. These surveys tell us where our efforts are most needed.

“Vulnerable” means we aren’t just helping transform lives. We are helping save them.