Improving health among homeless people

2 min read

During the decade she spent as a physician assistant at Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, Jill Roncarati saw, up close and personal, the ravages people suffered when they had no place to live. Cancers went undetected until they’d reached an advanced stage. Preventable complications from untreated diabetes emerged. Substance abuse problems dragged on for years.

Roncarati eventually decided the best way to help improve health among homeless people would be to study why they were faring so poorly—which led her to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, where she earned a master’s of public health degree in 2007 and is now slated to earn a doctorate in social and behavioral sciences next fall.

Her doctoral research has focused on mortality rates and causes among the so-called “rough sleepers” in Boston—those who sleep outside for months at a time. “There hasn’t been a lot of research about this group,” Roncarati said. “I thought it would be important to really understand their situation in order to serve them best.”

Roncarati studied psychology in college. Figuring she might work in the health care field, she also took courses in chemistry and biology. After college she worked in biochemistry labs. But she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do.

One day when she was working at Boston University School of Medicine’s Pulmonary Center, one of the pulmonologists invited her to shadow him for a day at the Pine Street Inn, a Boston homeless shelter, while he conducted a tuberculosis (TB) clinic.