THE BLOG
04/26/2011 12:42 pm ET Updated Jun 26, 2011

Homeless Triage Is Better Than 'First Come, First Served'

Years ago, I stood in a dilapidated waiting room of a free health clinic in a northern town of Haiti -- a country that many describe as the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. The sick patients were so deprived they were barely able to feed themselves and their families, let alone having enough resources to pay for a visit to the doctor.

The volunteer medic systematically walked the line of potential patients with a stethoscope around his neck, otoscope in hand, and a clipboard under his arm, that he used to rank which lucky ailing person would be seen that day.

It was an excruciating, emotional, early morning routine. People waited in line with head concussions, bleeding sores, signs of cancer or AIDS, or simple flu symptoms. The medic and clinic staff knew their resources were limited, so a majority of the sick would be turned away. Typically they would just wait outside until the next day.

The medical team, entrenched in this impoverished developing country's ghetto of poverty and sickness, knew that if they created a "first come, first served" system, those who were most ailing would die on the streets. They knew they had to prioritize the entry of patients.

Thirty years after America encountered a significant spike in homelessness, in the 1980s, our country is starting to use the same logic in treating its impoverished citizens who suffer on our streets.

Traditional public and private funding for homelessness are being redirected toward serving the most chronic homeless persons first. These are people who have been on the streets for a long time and are struggling with disabilities or chronic health ailments. They would never be housed if they had to wait in a "first come, first served" line.

Last year, President Obama put out a national strategy to address America's homelessness. He prioritized homeless veterans and chronic homeless persons.

The 100K Homes campaign that is sweeping this country is inspiring communities to prioritize those persons on the street who could very well die within a year or two if they are not housed. Over 80 cities around the country are implementing this strategy.

Last week, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, with a $23 billion annual budget and the 19th largest economy in the world, passed a motion to prioritize its homelessness funding to first help "the most hardcore street dwellers" in the county.

This idea was advocated by a group of business leaders in Los Angeles who last year called for reallocation of existing county homelessness and housing funding through its "Home For Good" strategy.

This movement to prioritize the most chronic homeless persons possesses the same logic as the medics struggling to treat the most ailing Haitians in the northern part of that impoverished country.

It just makes sense.

David was homeless in a beach community in Los Angeles County for nearly 20 years. As a veteran, he struggled with memories of war and a disabled body. He went in and out of homeless programs and health clinics for years, usually when law enforcement started sweeping his neighborhood or when he was so sick paramedics sent him to the hospital emergency room.

Homeless service professionals thought David would never come in. He was too entrenched in the life of the street and was determined not to be helped.

Until a campaign to house the most chronic homeless persons came into his town. He was prioritized to be helped and housed and a team of caregivers were more determined than David to get him into a permanent home.

Today, David lives in a studio apartment where he cooks his own meals, watches television, and is regularly visited by a caregiver.

If David had been in Haiti, I am guessing he would've also been the first in line to be treated at the free clinic.