The ‘Beast from the East’ put homelessness under the spotlight in February and March as rough sleepers faced freezing conditions. But a more persistent problem among homeless people, which is little talked about, is the prevalence of mental health issues.
As someone with bipolar disorder, who has never been homeless, I wanted to investigate what support there is out there for homeless people with mental health conditions. Anyone can be affected by homelessness, regardless of age, race or sex. Among homeless people, 44% have been diagnosed with a mental health condition, according to Homeless Link.
Homeless link points out that homelessness is a stressful, lonely, traumatic experience, which has a major impact on mental health. In summarising some of its research into homelessness and mental health, Crisis says: ‘Serious mental health issues, such as schizophrenia, bipolar and post traumatic stress disorder are more common among homeless people. ‘Suicide rates are nine times higher, demonstrating the very real need of effective support’
Homeless people with mental health issues, particularly rough sleepers, often have less access to mental health professionals due to their lack of address or their complex needs. Being homeless is extremely overwhelming. Treatment may be the last thing on the mind of a homeless person with a mental health condition when they are focused on finding a way to get food and a place to sleep.
The prevalence of drug and alcohol addictions is an added problem. According to Crisis: ‘Homeless people are more vulnerable to alcohol and drug use. ‘Multiple diagnosis of substance and mental health issues can be a barrier. Rates of alcohol and drug use are four times higher than in the general population.’ Understandably, addiction can get worse when someone is homeless, due to the stress.
St Mungo’s is charity that has conducted research into this area and affected change in legislation. Its investigation ‘Stop the Scandal’, looks at mental health and rough sleeping. The charity called for a national strategy to end rough sleeping and changes to the law. Following St Mungo’s campaign, in 2017 the government backed the Homelessness Reduction Act. This legislation, which came into force on 3 April, is designed to prevent people becoming homeless and to give councils more power to tackle the issue. The government also committed to halve rough sleeping by 2022. St Mungo’s is leading the way on this.
It said: ‘Our experience is that homeless people are treated poorly and often labelled and judged. ‘People see drink or drugs behind rough sleeping, but rarely think about mental health. ‘Mental ill-health can affect anyone, but people sleeping rough face adverse weather conditions, fear and isolation’.
Robert Mandelstam, an independent expert in housing for vulnerable people, agrees with this. He says: ‘It’s too early to state whether the Homelessness Reduction Act will alleviate the rate of homeless people, but it is a step in the right direction. ‘The only hope is that local housing departments will be adequately resourced to deal with demands. ‘We hope that people with mental health conditions will be able to engage with homelessness organisations. ‘There are major health costs of placing people in temporary accommodation for long periods of time at exorbitant rents, which will only increase mental health issues.’
Accessing mental health support can be more difficult when you are homeless So what’s being done to help? There are both charities and homeless campaigners doing incredible work in the UK. Natasha Langelben helped set up the social enterprise Linkey, in London. It provides packs of essentials to homeless shelters and rough sleepers. Natasha says: ‘Although the long term aim should clearly be to support those who are homeless off of the streets, this cannot always be achieved immediately […]. ‘We work to stock shelters with essential items and ensure we have items for rough sleepers, including sleeping bags and thermals’
There is also the Healthy London Partnership, which has worked with all 32 NHS England London Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) to develop the London Homeless Health Programme. Explaining why the programme was set up, it said: ‘The average age of death for someone who is sleeping rough is just 47. ‘Rates of drug and alcohol dependence are very high. Mental and physical health is often poor. ‘Many homeless people are high users of NHS services. Our work supports the delivery of improved health services and access to those services.’
Another charity, Pathway, has worked with hospitals to set up homelessness teams to make sure that people are helped into accommodation. In 2015, Pathway helped Kings Health Partners Pathway Team in London to set up a service to support homeless people who were inpatients.
The team is staffed by a GP and occupational therapists. It has help from local charities who supply housing workers. Centre Point is a well-known charity that works with young people to reduce rates of homelessness and give them much needed support. Paul Noblet, head of public affairs at Centrepoint, says: ‘The damage homelessness can cause to a young person’s health can be far-reaching and have a huge impact, even after they find safety in our hostels. ‘Early intervention is crucial, we employ health professionals with expertise in counselling, substance misuse and mental health. ‘Ending youth homelessness is about giving young people the space and support to build a more positive future.’
Hugo Sugg is a homelessness campaigner who has experienced homelessness aged 18. He was helped by the Supported Housing for Young People Project (SHYPP) in Hereford. Hugo says: ‘I was made homeless. I could not work, could not claim benefits, couldn’t do anything other than call up anyone I could, to get somewhere to stay.
He sometimes used Nightstop, a charitable programme where a host family puts up a homeless person for the night. ‘SHYPP were the key to me being able to get a flat, gain employment and get to university. ‘They offered me a support worker who became the person I relied on for everything. ‘I was walking around because I couldn’t stay anywhere, I was going to the council and trying to get food – I walked over the Wye Bridge. ‘With the mentality I was in, I thought it would be easier to jump into the murky waters. ‘Something stopped me – I had a warm feeling because I knew that my worker, counsellor and friends were there. ‘My drive and determination to get better from this situation was what stopped me from ending my life. ‘I used self-determination to say to myself “I’m going to succeed and get past this”.
In the 10 years since he became homeless, Hugo has got into youth work, gone to university, talked to MPs, ran in a general election, been on national media to talk about his experience and run his own homeless campaign. There is still more that needs to be done to stop homelessness and rough sleeping. Hopefully, the Homelessness Reduction Act and the governments commitment will make a difference.
Read more: https://metro.co.uk/2018/04/10/homelessness-and-mental-health-whats-being-done-to-help-7421391/?ito=cbshare
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