Homelessness is not a diagnosis
Homelessness is caused by poverty. And no, homelessness is not caused by mental illness, choice, drug addiction, alcoholism, unemployment, brain injury, intellectual disability, physical disability, illness or family breakdown. However, these things can all create poverty and poverty can lead to homelessness.
Poverty doesn’t, of course, always lead to homelessness, but poverty is the underlying cause of all homelessness. I am yet to meet a wealthy unemployed or mentally ill person who is chronically homeless.
Family breakdown can mean that someone previously well supported in a home and a relationship with an employed partner must suddenly try to live on a single wage, support payments or a single parent benefit. Anyone living on benefit payments in Australia is living in poverty.
In Australian cities, housing has become so expensive to rent or buy that anyone living in poverty has great trouble finding affordable housing. Not being able to afford housing, because you are poor and housing is expensive, leads to homelessness.
So, why am I telling you these basic facts? Because homelessness is widely misunderstood and it is time for those of us that know more about homelessness to clarify exactly what causes it. I’m mindful that current public discourse on homelessness very rarely mentions poverty and unaffordable housing. Instead, I am seeing an increase in the misunderstanding of it and a certain “pathologising” of those who experience homelessness.
One of the reasons I know this is because the Mercy Foundation has a grants program that has a focus on ending homelessness. We invite community organisations to submit proposals to undertake projects that will “end” the experience of homelessness for a particular group or number of people or families in their community. You’d think there would be widespread mention of linking people with affordable housing – but no, not much.
Far too many groups would like to run living skills courses or education programs or case management or any number of activities which don’t necessarily include linking people with any type of housing.
Don’t get me wrong, these can be incredibly worthwhile things to do and there are definitely some quite vulnerable people who need those types of supports to sustain housing. However, everyone – vulnerable or not – needs housing. First.
The notion that every person who becomes homeless has inadequate living skills is patronising. Some do, some don’t. The notion that everyone should do a living skills course or somehow prove they have adequate living skills before being offered housing is problematic. For two reasons: homelessness is unsafe and a place to live and a living skills course (if needed) is far more effective if you have a home, a base, a community in which you might be able to apply those living skills.
I call this approach “case managing” people out of homelessness. There is no evidence for its effectiveness. It doesn’t work. Stop trying to do it. The saying that “If you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail” is relevant here. If you have no houses, but you do have several case managers and a couple of educators – everything looks like it needs to be case managed or educated.
Such things are incredibly useful, when needed, when they are provided in conjunction with housing. So is employment. Having a job relieves poverty and addresses homelessness. But can you imagine trying to get a job or continue a job whilst you have no stable place to live? Nowhere to shower, nowhere to cook, nowhere to prepare for work, nowhere to store your clothes and other belongings and nowhere safe?
There is a high proportion of mentally unwell people who are homeless, not because of their mental illness. It is because too many people diagnosed in early adulthood end up living in long-term unemployment and poverty. Living on a disability support pension keeps you poor and sometimes makes you homeless. Living with the impact of relapses in your illness can create disruption to living arrangements that are not easily dealt with when you have little money and your problem-solving skills may have been compromised during periods of illness.
Of course, it is a great pity that addicts and alcoholics are also over-represented in the homeless population. I still haven’t met a wealthy addict who is homeless. Being addicted to something makes you poor, very poor. It is also not unreasonable to suggest that many addicts have created their own poverty. I’d be the very first to agree that a fulfilling life and a stable housing career is only possible if the addiction is appropriately dealt with. However, while the answer here is about treatment and recovery, it is also most definitely about housing. Ever tried to get clean on the streets? Nope, that doesn’t work either.
It is also important to place addictions and homelessness in context. Many homeless addicts had a poor start in life and were themselves brought up in poverty. There is even some growing evidence that some homeless people acquire an addiction or mental health problem after becoming homeless (not always before). Homelessness itself is traumatic and traumatising.
So, I invite everyone to have another think about the causes of and solutions to homelessness. Whilst there is no easy answer over the long term and some homeless people will need ongoing support, treatment, education and case management, the very first response to homelessness must always be about housing.
As for preventing homelessness across our population? As I mentioned before, that’s about poverty – not pathology.
Felicity Reynolds is the CEO of the Mercy Foundation.