There are over 600,000 homeless people in the United States. Approximately 138,000 of those individuals are children. Although most people in the U.S. have never been homeless, many people have countless theories about the causes of homelessness, as well as the homeless themselves. One popular theory about the homeless is that many are mentally ill drug-addicted individuals who stand on street corners talking to themselves because they can’t keep a job. Another theory is that homeless people are drug addicts who’ve made bad choices, hence their situation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although some homeless people suffer from a mental illness, the vast majority do not. There are a number of reasons people many find themselves without a place to live. In fact, homelessness is an ongoing public health issue in our country. Below are the top three causes of homelessness in the U.S.:
Lack of Affordable Housing: Beginning in the 1970s, wages of the working-class have failed to keep pace with inflation and increased housing costs. This has made it more difficult for modest-income families to find safe, affordable places to live.
Poverty: Individuals with limited financial resources often lack the necessary funds to afford basic necessities, such as housing. Also, for these individuals, one missed paycheck or one unanticipated expense could result in not having enough to pay rent or mortgage. Such circumstances can easily lead to losing one’s housing.
Disparity between Income and Cost of Housing (i.e., unemployment and under employment): Many people who are homeless are employed. However, the employment they hold frequently does not pay enough to allow them to afford housing in addition to their other expenses.
Homelessness and Mental Illness
While most people without homes do not suffer from a mental illness, a disproportionate number of homeless individuals suffer from mental illness. Depending on the information source, estimates are that between 16% and 33% of homeless individuals suffer from a mental illness. The overrepresentation of mental illness among the homeless can be due to a number of reasons. First, people who suffer from a mental illness are not always able to connect with the appropriate resources to help them manage their illness, which may result in decreased functioning. These individuals may also lack the necessary abilities to care for themselves or manage an independent household. Unfortunately, they may also lack the social skills necessary to establish and maintain personal relationships. The impact of the above lack of skills could result in a lack of social support during periods of increased symptomatology. For example, their symptoms may include paranoia, delusions, hallucinations, or other behavior that can be uncomfortable for and misinterpreted by others, which leads to burnout by family and friends who may eventually avoid contact altogether. Friends and family who may have previously offered at least a temporary place to stay may rescind the offer due to the strain of the affected person’s symptoms.
In addition to the above, people who suffer from a mental illness have a shorter life expectancy when compared to individuals without a mental health diagnosis. They frequently lack access to adequate healthcare and mental health treatment. In most jurisdictions throughout the country, there are fewer resources to treat these individuals than needed.
As a result of a lack of support, treatment, and housing, individuals with mental illness encounter law enforcement and end up involved in the criminal justice system at an alarming rate. In fact, some estimates suggest that 20% of people detained in jails and prisons suffer from a mental illness. Forensic Psychologists working with inmate populations frequently encounter people with mental illness as they often get arrested for quality-of-life crimes including shoplifting and trespassing. Many of these individuals suffer from chronic homelessness as well as a history of inadequate treatment for their mental health.
Inequality for All (2013). RADiUS-TWC Films