Homelessness is a worldwide epidemic where thousands upon thousands of people don’t have a place to go, a bed to sleep in or a meal to eat. In Canada alone, 200 000 people experience homelessness every year, 150 000 access shelters and 30 000 Canadians are without a home every single night (source). It is a serious problem that needs to be addressed.
People discuss the topic of homelessness on a frequent basis, but the mental health of the homeless is often forgotten. Having experienced homelessness, shelter hopping and food-begging, one may find themselves completely isolated in this world and without a place to belong. These kinds of emotions often exude depression, anxiety and other serious mental health conditions. If the situation is severe, the individual may attempt suicide, with or without fail.
A large quantity of people who lose their homes develop mental illness, but some become homeless due to mental illness or their sexual identity, which is often seen in youth.
Being homeless or having a mental illness is a war on it’s own, but the combination is a whole other hell.
How does homelessness affect mental health?
Constant Fear. Once homeless, there’s this constant fear that lingers. The majority of people residing in North America believe homelessness is the unthinkable if it has never happened in their family, and once they become homeless, it longer seems impossible. That separation between them and “the homeless” no longer exists as that line fades.
Homelessness is true fear; you don’t know what you’re going to eat (if you will), where you’re going to sleep (if you can find a bed) or who will be your neighbour. Everyday is a new unknown.
Shelters offer some safety in regards of keeping the homeless off the streets, out of the cold and away from nightly dangers, but they have dangers of their own. Youth shelters have more resources regarding counselors and mental health, along with available staff and smaller bedrooms. Whilst adult shelters can be one massive room, cluttered with beds side by side, and peoples’ things everywhere. It’s wonderful to have a bed to lay your head on but the fear of a fight breaking out can be too much. The in-shelter fears are what keeps some on the streets; unfed and in the cold.
They can get their own place but the fear will remain. Some days, they may not feel a differentiation between homelessness and them having a home in the fear of losing what they they worked so hard to gain.
Lack of Self-Care. When someone has spent several months working a dead-end job, not spending a dime on themselves, they lose a healthy perspective on money. Money suddenly becomes something they need to hold on in case that “rainy day” comes again. Spoiling themselves no longer becomes an option because they don’t want to risk losing everything they worked so hard to get.
Do they really need that toothbrush? That sweater? How about that meal?
That obsessive need to keep every dime will decline their health, happiness and well-being as they no longer know when it’s okay to purchase food for themselves in case it’s “too much money”.
Taking Any Employment. Having money and a job can be a desperate need, and thus, the individual will take any job that pops up. This can result in a decline of happiness if their work position is bringing them down or the coworkers they have do not respect them. They may have a poor paying job with excessive amounts of labour, but it won’t stop them.
They will let themselves be insulted and disrespected, all to get that apartment they so desperately need. They won’t get an option as to what they get to do because, they don’t exactly have a say if they want to get back on their feet.
This kind of environment will be the ultimate sacrifice of that person’s mental health as they lose sight of what they deserve, what is acceptable or unacceptable and how their voice matters.
There are a good number of people who cannot access employment due to mental illness or disabilities they may have, and do not have the help for, which leaves them trapped, unemployed and without money to feed themselves.
Trouble Accessing Help. In youth shelters, there are more means of mental heath assistance, though not always plentiful or perfect. But, adult shelters aren’t always equipped with this, which leaves homeless adults without the proper care they need.
Luckily, in Canada, we are offered free Health Care, which covers some mental health services, but not all. Not to mention, all free mental health services have some form of wait list, which can leave someone in need of dire help in the back seat. If accessing a service is taking a lengthy period of time, there are drop-in counselling services hosted by different organisations that will help assess the issue and try to open doors to other services, if required.
Influences. It would be naive to not acknowledge drugs and alcohol as those are behaviour changing substances that are taken for coping reasons, though it is important to remember that homelessness is not synonymous with drug addict or alcoholic.
When substances enter the picture, it can be hard to resist as drugs and alcohol are an accessible way of coping with this distressing time. They offer a form of escape that lets the one affected escape from their reality.
Using can affect someone’s cognitive ability, along with healthy decision making and a progressive outlook. If the individual isn’t careful, they could ingest a substance that causes a terrifying and dangerous psychosis phase that could be life threatening.
It’s important to talk about the matter instead of shunning every homeless person for the serious coping strategies of a few. We must encourage sobriety to encourage everyone to put their future’s first, and help get them into a safe and stable environment.
This is a serious problem occurring all around the world and we need hands to reach out and be of help to those who need it. Homeless, mentally ill, the combination of both… Try your best to be of help, to be understanding and not to shame either or.
If there’s something you can do, do it.