Saying the state has to “think creatively,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation Wednesday to let hospitals build housing for people experiencing homelessness, a measure that supporters say represents an important step toward better health care.

The idea is that permanent, stable housing is a key to good health. People who are homeless are more likely to be hospitalized more often, to stay in the hospital longer once they’re there, and to require more care during treatment.

Providing affordable housing near hospitals could help head that off. Several New Jersey hospitals have been moving forward with plans for partnerships and pilot programs.

A 2002 study showed that providing housing and support services to more than 4,600 mentally ill homeless people in New York City significantly reduced their stays in hospitals, shelters, and correctional facilities, reported Healthcare Finance, which studies developments on the topic.

The bill the governor signed Wednesday allows for the construction and for hospitals to provide greater services to those living in the new, nearby homes.

“As New Jersey emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic that has caused severe economic and social disruption, we must think creatively about ways to reduce housing instability and improve access to services,” Murphy said, commending allies in the Legislature “for their efforts to eliminate housing insecurity and improve the health of New Jerseyans.”

Hospitals are increasingly turning to housing as a way to combat the high costs of treating individuals who suffer chronic homelessness, said State Sen. Bob Smith, a cosponsor.

“We hold ourselves to a high standard in helping the most vulnerable populations in the state,” he said in a statement. “This law will ensure our homeless population has a safe place to turn to after they receive treatment, without depleting hospital resources that could go towards helping other patients.”

Before the pandemic, an estimated 8,864 people were experiencing homelessness in the state, including those in emergency shelters, transitional housing, safe havens, and living on the streets, according to the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness. Among those, a total of 1,462 people were identified as chronically homeless in 2019.

Racial disparities were evident, the group said, particularly for people who identified as Black or African American. They make up 13% of the state population but 24% of those living in poverty and 49% of those counted as homeless.

Having a home makes it easier for health providers and patients to ensure continued follow-up care and for the provision of additional healthful services including nutrition, life skills, and job training.

“Giving homeless people access to housing and comprehensive social support in order to improve their overall health really works,” said Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson. “Helping people in our communities avoid the harsh and dangerous conditions they would otherwise face without a home is the compassionate and logical thing to do.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.