Medical bills were the primary source of debt among people in the study.

Research shows that medical debt burdens millions of Americans: Depending on how you define “medical debt,” studies from nonprofits and academic institutions generally show from 16% to 28% of adults carry that burden.

And medical debt and housing instability often go hand in hand.

“So many people have lost their jobs, and then they lose their health insurance. They may not be able to pay even small medical bills or co-pays and still have rent or mortgage payments. If they get sick with coronavirus, or some other medical condition, this can be the perfect storm that puts people out on the street and increases the time they spend there,” says Jessica Bielenberg, who conducted the study for her master’s thesis from the University of Washington’s School of Public Health.

Little research has been done linking medical debt and homelessness, Bielenberg points out. While her study did not find a direct causal relationship between the two, it did determine that among those experiencing homelessness, the inability to pay off medical bills, even a few hundred dollars, was associated with considerably more time spent unhoused.

In all, more than 80% of participants reported having debt of some kind, such as doctor bills, student loans, credit cards, or payday loans. Of those participants, 68% reported medical debt, the majority of which had gone to collections.

In about one-third of cases, the amount of medical debt was relatively small—less than $300. That underscores what, for many people, can be a domino effect, Bielenberg says: One lost job, or lack of health insurance, can saddle a person with debts they have to prioritize, if they can pay them at all.

Read the full article about medical debt and homelessness by Kim Eckart at Futurity.