NYC Health + Hospitals, seeking to address the social determinants of health, has backed the construction and future management of a housing project for low-income mental health patients on the campus of one of its hospitals.

The largest public health system in the nation is partnering with local nonprofit Comunilife, which provides specialized affordable housing, to create a six-story building on an underused piece of land at its Woodhull Medical Center location in North Brooklyn. NYC Health + Hospitals leased the plot to Comunilife, which will construct 89 studio apartments for low-income residents, 54 of which will be designated for income-eligible residents living with mental illness. The project is expected to be done by 2018.

The building is part of the health system's larger transformation plan, designed to address the social determinants of health in New York City. And at the heart of this partnership is a mutual desire to tackle the increasing number of homeless patients stuck in the cycle of readmission to the emergency department, many of whom are living with mental illness.

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“It’s about trying to meet the needs of people where they live,” says Ram Raju, M.D., president and CEO, NYC Health + Hospitals, and member of the American Hospital Association board of trustees. “Health care leaders have to be social change agents — this is an example of that.”

Woodhull Medical Center specializes in mental health and its department of psychiatry will refer patients who have been deemed ready to live independently to its Comunilife housing. The building will provide social services to residents, including care coordination and vocational rehab, to help tenants develop skills for the working world. Case managers will make sure patients continue to receive proper treatment at Woodhull and arrange for care at other institutions in the city as necessary.

“There’s a benefit for patients because it’s better for them to be living independently in their own apartment with the support they need, but also for the hospital because it’s best if these patients are discharged to the appropriate housing alternative,”says Rosa Gil, M.D., president and CEO, Comunilife.

Benefits aside, Raju says leadership needs to learn about the people who make up its community before truly addressing their health needs. They need to ask if there’s public safety in the area. Have conversations about the precinct and determine if there’s adequate transportation, along with the educational and economic opportunities in the area.

“In the past, I was naïve in thinking that, if you want to offer health care to a particular community, you just go and start a clinic there and people will come,” says Raju. “That’s not true.”