Bloomberg Fellow Veronica Helms can attest that first-hand experience is often the best way to learn. As a public health major and women’s studies minor at the University of Georgia, Veronica already knew she would dedicate her career to improving the health of children, youth and families. But her time volunteering at a domestic violence shelter reshaped her entire outlook on the public health field. 

Veronica Helms

Bloomberg Fellow Veronica Helms

Interacting with women and families at the shelter got her thinking about the complex relationship between housing status, traumatic experiences and health. Research has shown that people who have experienced trauma and poverty disproportionately suffer from adverse health outcomes. The more Veronica thought about domestic violence as a health issue, the more aware she became of its intersections with social factors like socioeconomic status, housing status and education — things that influence health far more than most people realize. 

Veronica’s interest in public service and the health of at-risk groups led her to a Presidential Management Fellowship, which brought her into her current position as a social science analyst at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. There, she studies the health characteristics of low-income Americans and HUD-assisted families living in public and assisted housing.  
Now, Veronica is working on her doctorate in public health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. We talked to her about the relationship between housing and health and how the Bloomberg American Health Initiative Summit inspired her to embark on a new project. 

Tell me about your work. 

I use data to provide evidence on the connection between housing and health. We quantify the health experiences of HUD-assisted families and leverage that information to consider how housing factors inhibit or improve quality of life in public and assisted housing. To do that, we develop partnerships with other federal health partners and organizations to help make the case for why HUD should be involved in public health programming and policy discussions. I’ve worked on two reports using this data, “A Health Picture of HUD-Assisted Children” and “A Health Picture of HUD-Assisted Adults.” These reports used HUD administrative data linked to the National Health Interview Survey to gain a better understanding of the health status of HUD-assisted individuals. The conclusions of the reports helped HUD make the case for addressing specific health risks impacting this population. For example, we found that approximately one-quarter of HUD-assisted children have asthma. Now, we’re collaborating with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to create a more comprehensive report on asthma rates among HUD-assisted children to determine which kids are most at risk. 

What’s the connection between housing and public health? 

When people think about housing, they typically think about the physical infrastructure of a home. But housing is directly related to a variety of health outcomes. Healthy People 2020, which is the federal government’s prevention agenda to build a healthier nation by the year 2020, focuses on improving five social determinants of health: neighborhood and built environment, social and community context, health and health care, education, and economic stability. Those same five categories can be used to explain the health risks posed by housing. For example, factors like a sense of community and individuals’ ability to trust their neighbors influence health, and these fall into the “social and community context” bucket. Where a family lives also determines where a child goes to school, and a child’s quality of education impacts health, as well, which falls into the “education” bucket. For most families, their greatest monthly cost is rent. A family’s ability to pay rent impacts overall economic stability and, therefore, health — filling the “economic stability” bucket. Factors for the “health” bucket include how close a housing unit is to health care facilities and whether local doctors accept Medicaid. Lastly, for the “neighborhood and built environment” bucket, factors like safe parks to play in and access to public transportation have direct relationships to health status.

Have you had a particularly meaningful experience during the fellowship?

My biggest takeaway has been from the 2018 Bloomberg American Health Initiative Summit where I learned about “opportunity youth,” who are defined as young people ages 16 to 24 who are not working and not in school. This made me think about the young people that HUD serves and how many opportunity youth the agency encounters. I am now working on a research project to understand how many opportunity youth live in HUD-assisted housing and what their health needs look like. Additionally, I’m always excited to see how Bloomberg Fellows across concentrations are thinking about these health and housing issues and to find ways I can apply these approaches to the work we do at HUD.