9 September 2013
Nearly 70% of people who access homeless services define themselves as having a mental health issue. Poor mental health is not a cause of homelessness. It’s not a consequence either. It’s both. Understanding that simple - but complex - truth is absolutely crucial for all of us involved in front line support agencies.
The fact is, a safe, decent and affordable home fundamentally helps to maintain our emotional health and wellbeing; poor housing or homelessness doesn't. Indeed, mental health issues might well be exacerbated or caused by the stresses associated with being homeless. By recognising this, agencies working with the homeless or insecurely housed can and should target preventative early intervention support, focussed at increasing emotional resilience.
Equally, the onset of mental illness can trigger, or be part of, a series of events that can lead to homelessness. People with enduring mental health problems often find it harder to hold down stable work, are more likely to be affected by relationship breakdowns, may use substances to "self-medicate" and tend to have lower incomes. Consequently, they are more likely to be homeless or insecurely housed.
Without this understanding, agencies cannot work together jointly and effectively to enable people to both find and maintain a home, while managing fluctuating mental health issues.
In my working life, I come across people who are living examples of this inextricable link everyday. Two recent clients spring to mind.
Who becomes homeless and why?
Hakim is an Iraqi refugee with severe post-traumatic disorder, anxiety and memory loss following the massacre of his family. He arrived in the UK at 18, with almost no English ability and, astonishingly, was given no access to agency support or translators. He used alcohol heavily to cope. Perhaps not surprisingly, he was eventually evicted from his tenancy – given he didn't understand it, due to mental health symptoms and language problems. However, following three years of support which included language skills, budgeting and debt management and mental health support, he has stopped using alcohol, has a part-time job and is preparing to move into an independent tenancy. Hakim’s mental health issues directly contributed towards his homelessness. But with the right holistic support and a stable, safe roof over his head, his mental health has improved. His long term housing stability is now likely to, as well.
Beth is a 41 year-old who, following the break-up of her relationship, found herself homeless. Having moved from the south of England with her partner, she didn't have family nearby to rely on and was placed in B&B accommodation by the council. With a history of bouts of depression and drinking, her mental health eventually deteriorated to the point where she took an overdose. Existing mental health difficulties were, without a doubt, compounded by her experience of living in temporary and insecure accommodation, without support. As support worker, I've liaised closely with several agencies, all geared towards increasing her wellbeing, coping mechanisms, and thus learning to live alone and run a home. She is now planning to start a degree in 2014.
Lindsey Gibbs, Supported Housing Officer
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