The Major Health Causes of Homelessness and How to Help
by Devin Morrissey
In the United States, homelessness overall and the number of those sleeping without shelter is on the rise. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, there are over half a million homeless individuals, and almost two fifths of those individuals are “unsheltered.”
It’s a nationwide problem, with implications both for those who are homeless and their pets.
When you survey the reasons why individuals end up on the streets, one of the predominant trends is the intersection of medical challenges and financial instability. For many, the two accompany each other in an endless, cyclical pattern.
While most of us recognize this, we may not understand the specifics of what it actually means to have medical conditions so impact both our ability to function in society and our financial stability. But, if there ever comes a day when homelessness ends, it’ll be because we took the time to asses and think through the correlation between the two.
While it’s difficult to say for certain, studies suggest that at least 25 percent of the homeless population is severely mentally ill. There’s a clear, unfortunate progression in terms of what is required to avoid homelessness and what those with severe mental health affiliations are capable of.
According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty insufficient income and lack of affordable housing are the leading causes of homelessness. Yet, those with mental health affiliations are often in no position to do what is necessary to secure housing.
For example, there’s an entire subset of bankruptcy cases relating specifically to individuals with mental illnesses, because they’re so prevalent. There is an obvious, severely negative impact
on one’s credit when bankruptcy and the events leading up to it transpire. Afterwards, the ways in which one can obtain a home are limited.
It is life changing for anyone, but for someone with mental health issues, this dynamic is crippling. Having a secure home life is a critical component of obtaining and maintaining stability for those who are mentally ill. Thus, their symptoms keep them from the work and social opportunities that might produce stability, and as a result they and their pets remain on the streets where getting the help they need is virtually impossible.
The Mental Health Foundation notes that the companionship of pets is tied to reduced anxiety and stress, and better mental health overall. Additionally, they point out that for those with mental health struggles pets provide a relief from loneliness and grant a sense of purpose.
To Support the Mentally Ill Consider:
Via your time and resources you can support psychiatric, community-run housing for the less fortunate. It is all too frequent that communities cut funding for those types of programs as well as for social workers. When that happens, often individuals end up in jail cells that do have room, even though that’s not an appropriate response.
It’s an inappropriate response not only because the individual will not receive the care they need, but also because their pet will then be transferred to an animal shelter. Thus, both will suffer from separation anxiety, and in some cases human and pet are not reunited.
The National Coalition for the Homeless has found that permanent, supportive housing for the severely mentally ill can be effective. Supporting programs that create housing for the mentally ill homeless — especially those that take pets into account — is a crucial way to prevent the mentally ill and their pets from receiving subpar care and treatment.
As with mental illness, chronic illnesses and afflictions can create an unending cycle that features an inability to receive needed healthcare, the financials, or the opportunities needed to receive that care.
If you can’t make the money needed to pay for help, you can’t receive care. If you can’t receive care that allows you to operate as a productive member of society, you can’t make money.
Some examples of note include:
HIV/AIDS: A fairly modern problem plaguing the homeless population is that of HIV and AIDS. When untreated, HIV symptoms become increasingly severe and opportunistic infections impact afflicted individuals more frequently, leaving afflicted people unable to work.
Degenerative diseases: Degenerative diseases — seen especially in the elderly — can wreak havoc. Not only those that intersect with mental illness like dementia, but also issues like cataracts and arthritis, which make work difficult if not impossible.
Cancer: The makers of Breaking Bad were on to something. The financial implications of cancer are so significant that even for those with insurance, it can be devastating. Often individuals who attempt to pay for treatment are then unable to pay for regular living expenses, and are forced out onto the streets.
Research shows that the number of cases of homelessness where there is a pre existing health problem underscores how significant the implications of those health problems are on those at-risk for homelessness.
To Support Those Who Have Chronic Illnesses:
Some communities have homeless medical projects where area organizations and providers come together to provide care for individuals who live on the streets. Supporting programs like these help ensure they remain active and that they can give comprehensive help to those in need, which in turn means that individuals can receive care and their pets remain with them instead of in the hands of the authorities.
Additionally, in the case of the type of cancer that can force homelessness oncology experts point out that there are charities, civic organizations, religious groups, and government projects already in existence whose goal is to help with the cost of cancer care for those who do not have insurance.
For those who need to be hospitalized there are organizations that work to connect them with foster parents for their pets. These organizations are always in need of willing foster parents and financial support.
Healthcare professionals write that pets can be an effective part of a pain management program for those who have chronic illnesses. By granting comfort in times of pain, they can ease discomfort. However, for the homeless with pets, chronic pain can make it even more difficult to care for those pets. Thus, it’s a challenging balancing act of maintaining the health of their pets and themselves, while not always having the physical capacity to do so in the way they need or want.
Homelessness and trauma often go hand-in-hand. In most situations where homelessness is present, it is likely that the individual also has a story, or many, of trauma. As the HCH Clinicians’ Network writes, “Regardless of age or gender, homeless people are particularly vulnerable to injury, accident, and assault. Trauma goes with the territory.”
This connection between homelessness and assault highlights how pets can add to a homeless individual’s quality of life. Pets are instinctively protective and create a line of defense — especially for women and the elderly — between their owners and potential attackers. Pets bring peace of mind for the vulnerable.
There are multiple avenues with which trauma can impact an individual’s life. The HCH Clinicians’ Network also notes that studies have consistently shown that domestic violence is one of the leading causes of homelessness, especially for women and children.
Plus, military veterans have historically been overrepresented within homeless communities. As with civilians, homeless veterans are usually from low income backgrounds, have mental health issues, or a history of substance abuse. However, because of war-related issues like PTSD and brain-injuries — which are major indicators of homelessness — veterans can be even more at risk than those who come from traditional, at-risk communities.
According to University of Nevada, Reno, 54 percent of homeless veterans have a physical or mental disability. The challenge for providers is recognizing that physical and mental ailments oftentimes are paired with veterans. Thus, not only are they potentially unable to physically work, they could also be struggling from trauma that hinders their ability to thrive.
Research has demonstrated that for individuals suffering from trauma support animals can provide, “emotional security, psychophysiological and affect regulation, neurological recalibration.” There’s a direct impact animals have on the ability a person who has experienced trauma has to heal and recover.
To Support Those Who Have Experienced Trauma:
For those who are fleeing the likes of domestic violence, domestic violence emergency centers, and transitional housing programs make all the difference. However, those types of programs often lack the necessary funds, staff, and space. They need support in the form of volunteers and donations. The majority also need organizational change that recognizes the value of pets. Many do not allow pets through their doors and thus force owners to decide between help and their pets.
Additionally, there are programs in every state that help connect homeless veterans with providers. The Department of Veterans affairs employs staff to help those who are homeless or who are at-risk. However, many veterans are unaware of that fact or are unable to access the help. For some, the help they need is largely a matter of connecting them with the help already in place.
There is no doubt that the way health and homelessness intersect is often crippling. In many instances, the tools an individual needs to get off the streets are not even an option due to their illnesses.
Every available data set on the lifespan of the homeless is sobering: they are likely to die 30 years earlier than the housed. To put it under a different light, they are three to four times more likely to die prematurely.
In virtually every instance, the pets of the homeless are an aid to them in the midst of their health struggles. At a minimum, they offer comfort, but as research has pointed out, they often transcend base level support and can actually be active participants in the recovering and pain management of their owners.
While there are some programs that recognize the value of pets in the lives of the homeless, overall there are few ways for individuals to receive care while keeping their pets with them. Which means that they must choose between their long-term furry support partner, or immediate medical intervention. It’s a flawed system that we hope to alter.
When you consider the awful cycle that homelessness and crippling illness produce, it’s no wonder so many struggle to find care. Understanding the specific challenges homeless individuals face in relation to healthcare and their pets, is the first step in actively working to resolve inefficiencies in the system.