Homelessness & Mental Illness: We All Deserve a Roof Over Our Heads

homeless person holding out his cap for change

Far too many people with mental illness will experience homelessness at some point. Why is that, and why on earth is it acceptable?

Risk factors for homelessness

According to the Homeless Hub, 30-35% experiencing homelessness have a mental illness.  Among women, that figure jumps to 70%. How does society allow this to happen to some of our most vulnerable people? Housing is a basic fundamental human need that all people should be able to access. Why are people with mental illness disproportionately represented in the homeless population?

The Homeless Hub identifies poverty, disaffiliation, and personal vulnerability as key reasons for the link. Mental illness can chip away at the social support network of family and friends, leaving not much of a backup.

Maintaining employment can be difficult due to the illness itself, but also due to systemic discrimination in the world of work. Disability benefits may be difficult to get, and the amounts may be inadequate to support the cost of living. The costs associated with obtaining appropriate health care can also be considerable. Universal basic income could go a long way in addressing this aspect of the issue.

Illness can impair judgment, leading to bad decision-making that may come with significant consequences, financial or otherwise. Landlords aren’t always prepared to tolerate behaviours associated with uncontrolled mental illness, especially if there’s a co-occurring substance use disorder. Poorly controlled psychosis can make it hard for people to tolerate remaining in housing if they’re feeling persecuted by neighbours.

Discharge to shelter

When I worked at a community mental health team, we got a lot of new client referrals from the local shelter. Because hospitals can’t hold people for the amount of time it takes to find housing, discharge to a shelter wasn’t all that unusual.

That may sound cruel, but at the same time, it can take months or even years for someone to find subsidized housing, especially supported housing. Hospitals simply couldn’t hold people for that long. In the city where I live, the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $1438.  The monthly shelter portion for provincial disability assistance is only $375. Somehow, that math is supposed to make sense.

It’s cheaper to house people

A study conducted by the Mental Health Commission of Canada found that when homeless people were provided with housing as part of a “housing first” model, the cost savings in terms of health and social services required was greater than the cost of providing and subsidizing the housing.

The Homeless Hub cites a 2013 figure that homelessness cost the Canadian economy over $7 billion that year to cover the cost of shelters, social services, increased use of emergency first responders, increased health care costs, and increases criminal justice system contacts. Clearly, it makes so much more sense to house people.

It’s frightening to think of ending up homeless, but it’s something that is a possibility for anyone. If those of us living with mental illness are more vulnerable, that’s all the more reason for governments to step up and improve access to mental health services in order to prevent these kinds of extreme outcomes. Because we really all do deserve a roof over our heads.

Homelessness and mental health infographic from the Homeless Hub
Social justice and equality - graphic of Earth surrounded by diverse children

The Social Justice & Equality page has info and resources on a wide variety of social issues.

42 thoughts on “Homelessness & Mental Illness: We All Deserve a Roof Over Our Heads”

  1. It’s same in the UK. More people are apparently in dept and struggling.
    Homelessness has increased further and the use of food banks too, all because of Universal Credit. DWP reckon that there is nothing wrong with this system. Well in my eyes, as well as others, there is when more people are using food banks.
    They pay the first payment late than they tell you. This happened to my neighbour. Luckily for him, although the rent he could not pay because he was waiting on Universal Credit, where he lives, it belongs to his dad. He still has to pay through the estate agents, but if it wasn’t for his dad in contacting them to not harrasss him for payment he has not got and have a father for a landlord, he would have been facing homeless.
    He even had to have his parents support for food in the cupboard. He had no money for bills, so was starting to be in trouble there. So this system is definitely wrong.

    DWP try to lighten things saying you can have an advanced payment. This gets paid back at whatever a week at no interest. But just how many can afford to do this? because benefits are not a life of luxury.

  2. Informative as always and thought provoking!

    I believe our governments certainly need to turn away from Capitalism and towards Socialism before real changes start to take place that considers ALL individuals in our societies! Too much in this world right now is dictated by people with unimaginable wealth deciding how to do the bare minimum for the less fortunate while still hoarding what they have.

    I strongly believe that everybody should have access to professional therapy and other mental health professionals, which is not the case in Canada. Like you’ve mentioned it’s a preventative measure that can save society so much in the long run by keeping a person from deteriorating completely. Every person should also be taken care of in their moments of hardship. Not every individual has an equal amount of inter-personal support as you’ve also pointed out and once you actually find yourself homeless it’s a hell of a struggle to come back from that.

    I hope that we are able to see great changes for future generations to come in my lifetime.

  3. It is really baffling how having a roof over your head is not viewed as this basic human right that anyone and everyone should be entitled to. I just don’t understand.

  4. Unfortunately it’s not any better in the US. I am saddened by the lack of resources for our homeless population – especially those suffering from mental illness.

  5. It’s horrible here. In big cities, the new apartments are all upscale and unaffordable except to the wealthy. Builders are required to make a few “affordable” units, for which there is a long waiting list, generally families ( understandable). Even older apartments that aren’t great are being priced out of reach of people with average salaries, so they have to double and triple up. That is assuming you have a good job and good credit, otherwise you’ll be lucky if someone sub-rents you a room at their whim. People say leave the cities, but that’s where the jobs are, so… ???

      1. Here? We’re treated as a headache. Heck, they room up men & women together. There have been attacks amongst all groupings, they won’t even go as far as investigating an issue until the problem has gotten worse.
        Example: Me getting punched in the jaw right before I was moving out of that Hell hole!
        They woudn’t call the authorities, I had to do that.

  6. /begin rant. And God help those numbers in the U.S. It’s unconscionable. Universal Basic Income and housing-first policies would ultimately save so much in ever-rising health costs. The economics is sound, so I honestly just view it as nothing less than evil bigotry when policies that should be simultaneously cost effective *and* compassionate are viewed as un-implementable simply because of stigma, bigotry and dehumanization on the part of elected officials and the public. You have the clinical experience, and I have the econ training to say there is no true cost tradeoff to housing the homeless mentally ill. Credible studies have found such policies can up to halve the health costs to Medicaid in the U.S. from these high-use groups. There is no justifiable excuse for not just saving money while treating people like people… /end rant

    1. Evil bigotry sounds about right. Today some dude commented on an earliest post of mine about pre-existing conditions and he was comparing health car to car insurance. People are people! Not cars, not government pawns, not write-offs – human!

  7. My biggest fear is actually being homeless. I hope it never happens. By the way, I imagine the number of mental illness among homeless men is much larger too, men just aren’t as likely to seek help for mental illness and get a diagnosis.

  8. This is such a great post and completely parallel to the trends of homelessness and mental health in the UK! Thank you for drawing attention to this, it is so important!

  9. Posts like these bring me back down to earth and make me realise how lucky I really am. It breaks my heart that people have to live this way. It shouldn’t be happening x

  10. This is horrible. I hope it will never happen to us too 😭. I’m sorry for everyone who has to go through this. We definitely all deserve a home. I know in The Netherlands they help people with a mental illness in the sense of giving resources and benefits but the waiting list can take a while. In Spain there are less resources like that. I just wish it was everywhere the same way.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: