Homelessness and Health: Chicken or the Egg?

In my previous article, I outlined the many health challenges and barriers to care that people who are experiencing homelessness face.  In particular, as mentioned in my video, approximately 58% of homeless people will have a lifetime diagnosis of mental illness, and about 38% will have experience an addiction in the lifetime.  However, an interesting issue with this is what came first, the mental illness/addiction, or homelessness?  This obviously has implications for how we understand the causes of homelessness.

Fortunately, a report titled “Homelessness in Melbourne: Confronting the Challenge” has included an exploration of this.  Although their numbers for mental illness (30%) and addictions (43%) were different than the ones mentioned above, reflecting looking at current issues versus lifetime prevalence, I believe the stats on when the mental illness/addiction was identified are very relevant.

So, what are they?  This report found that 66% developed their addiction after becoming homeless, and 53% developed their mental illness after becoming homeless.  These are important figures, as they point to the toll that living homeless has on people, and highlight the importance of rapid re-housing programs.  It’s also interesting to note the high percentage of people who develop an addiction after becoming homeless, showing how substance use can be a protective mechanism against the physical and emotional pains of street life, while at the same time making it harder for people to escape the streets.

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