Bobby Watts says the homeless have enough to think about without worrying about their health.
"They have other pressing needs," said Watts, the executive director of Care for the Homeless. "They're thinking, where am I gonna find food for the day? Where am I going to sleep? How can I make sure my kid gets to school? Health care tends to fall to the bottom of their list of priorities until it becomes an urgent situation."
Watts said he wants to put an end to homeless people's health problems before they have to go to the emergency room. Care for the Homeless, based in New York City, sends service teams of doctors, nurses and social service workers to find homeless people, instead of the other way around. They visit shelters, soup kitchens and street corners to provide assistance.
"Many will not seek out the care they need so we go to where they are," Watts said. "That's one of the ways we reduce barriers to care."
But Watts noted that helping the homeless is made all the more difficult by the economic downturn.
"It's been a huge challenge. The number of homeless people in shelters has gone up a great deal," Watts said. "At the same time, there's less funding, because there have been cuts."
Care for the Homeless also battles the notion that the homeless are completely responsible for their socio-economic standing.
"We as a nation, when we see someone who is down and has chronic problems, tend to say, 'What is wrong with this person?'" Watts said. "We ask, what are their deficiencies? Substance abuse? Mental illness? Education?"
Watts said the focus should be shifted instead to how society has failed those without a place to live. He sees homelessness as the result of the failure of various social structures, including the health care system.
"Everybody deserves dignity," Watts said. "It's trite, but that's so vital."
That same thinking comes across in Watts' take on whether people should give money to homeless people who ask for change on subways or on the street.
"It's an individual decision," Watts said. "One important thing is to just acknowledge the person. View them as a human being instead of an object to be avoided. And support organizations that are working to help homeless people."
Through all of the challenges that his organization faces, Watts maintains an unrelenting positive attitude about what he, his organization and his country can do.
"Even if our organization can't do everything that we want to do, we're still helping people," Watts said. "When we can help a homeless person get housing, get back on their feet, often we're helping their family, too. We can be helping whole communities."
"I'm optimistic that we can eliminate homelessness," he added. "That optimism is what keeps me going."
To learn more about Care for the Homeless, visit the organization's website, here.