It’s Tuesday night in Omaha. Sarah Hughes’ work day is just beginning and her office is anything but conventional. Tonight, she’ll climb through abandoned buildings, case parking lots at shopping centers and scour camp sites in the woods. Sarah is a housing navigator for UnitedHealthcare, and this unique role requires her to be a detective, logistician, teacher and – above all – trusted friend within the homeless community.
Sarah is not alone in this endeavor. She is part of a highly-trained group comprised of 10 agencies who search for those who are homeless and in immediate need of health care or housing resources.
“Everybody deserves a home,” Sarah said, who joined UnitedHealthcare in 2016. “The homeless is the most overlooked population. Their voice gets lost or they’re cast aside, which is why I work every day to help advocate for them.”
On an average street outreach mission, the team will make contact with about a dozen people who are homeless and provide them with various resources. If they were a UnitedHealthcare member, Sarah can work on behalf of the company to immediately manage their health care and even schedule next-day medical appointments. This type of personal engagement helps homeless members find the right care they need, instead of resorting to costly emergency rooms.
“I don’t wait for the homeless to come to me,” Sarah said. “I’ll go wherever I need to find them as long as it’s safe, so I can make sure all of their wrap-around services are in place.”
A key social determinant of health is stable and safe housing. However, this a very challenging issue for members who are homeless because many of them have misplaced or no longer have the required documentation, such as social security cards, bank statements or state identification cards. While Sarah works closely with the members to obtain these documents, she also negotiates with several agencies across Nebraska to find suitable housing, furniture and household goods.
“If Sarah didn’t find me and help me at the shelter, I’d still be lost and homeless,” said David from Omaha. “She helped get me out of the shelter and get everything I needed for my apartment.”
When it’s time to move into new housing, Sarah spends considerable time training UnitedHealthcare members to improve their chances of success at keeping their home and improving their health outcomes.
“I do a lot of education around budgeting and how to be a good tenant,” Sarah said. “For some people, they need the option of having a community. For others, they need certain life skills like how to schedule in-home health care, arrange transportation or access to SNAP, Nebraska’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.”
Sarah’s involvement as a housing navigator in Nebraska is making a difference. According to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, more than 2,400 people are homeless on any given day in Nebraska – a 3.2 percent decrease from the year prior.
“Since joining UnitedHealthcare, Sarah has fearlessly helped more than 100 members find suitable housing and aided more than 530 with housing resources and training,” said Kathy Mallatt, CEO, UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Nebraska. “We love Sarah’s dedication to serving others and accepting others as they are. Her friendly and determined nature drives success in building trust with the individuals she serves.”