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.

Illustration by Ada Qian

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.

7 Comments on “Homelessness is not a diagnosis

  1. Your blog iterates my own thoughts on homelessness. This year I published “Salvation Jane” with the object to raise public awareness of poverty in Australia, the erosion of the the social welfare system and the departure from mateship and the spirit of egaltarianism toward elitism and a selfish mind set. If you would be interested in reading it let me know and I’ll send you a copy either as a paperback or ebook.
    Kind regards,

    • Anne I would be very interested in reading your book. If we share our ideas and inspirations then we can potentially make a difference.



      • Hi Felicity,
        I would be very pleased to forward you a copy of Salvation Jane either as a paperback or ebook. in the novel a hard-heatrted West Australian goverment has put in place Zero Tolerance, a program aimed at criminalizing the homeless. One aspect is to enforce strict hygene regulations so as to make it financially unviable for charities to maintain soup kitchens, object to remove an incentive from congregating in the city.

        Recently a former practising lawyer from Key West who became homeless reviewed it–here’s the link: http://thebluepaper.com/article/book-review-salvation-jane-by-jane-massey/ He mistakenly put the author as Jane Massey instead of Ann Massey.
        Please email me with your contact details if you would be interested in reading “Salvation Jane”.
        Best wishes,
        Ann Massey

    • Hi Ann,
      I recently prepared a paper on homelessness and would like to know more. I am very interested in reading your book and was wondering where I might be able to get a copy from?
      Thank you

  2. Felicity you are absolutely correct. I have worked in the social housing / social justice sector since 1979 and you make the important point about the life skill, education requirements, addictions and the poverty that contribute to homelessness.

    In all the agencies that I have worked with I have advocated what I call a whole of service. Once accommodation that is stable and long term is secured then you can introduce the life skills training and all the other things that will give the person the best possible chance of sustaining their home. This must be done respectfully. That means that the different support workers need to get together with the person going into their new home and have a discussion with their “client” as they like to call them. This discussion however means that they listen to their client respectfully to get a clear understanding of what they need. Not what the worker thinks or wants them to need. By all means offer suggestions and choices so that their client can be fully informed however do not push any agenda’s.

    Down in Victoria under the Victorian Governments Housing Innovation Program a number of projects have been working successfully to reduce homelessness. One of the most successful is the Detour Program. This Program is a partnership between three agencies, Melbourne City Mission, Kids under Cover and Uniting Care Cutting Edge. The program is an early intervention program designed to stop a young person leaving home if it is safe to do so. The program is founded upon research that shows that many young people were leaving home due to relationships with their parents or carers breaking down. The program has “youth coaches” in schools in the Melbourne suburb of Sunshine and in the regional city of Shepparton. These coaches are part of the student support services and when a young person presents to a counsellor indicating that they may leave home they are interviewed about the situation. If it is safe a meeting is held where the young person and their parents or carers are able to discuss the situation and the youth coaches mediate this. If there is an opportunity to get the parties to agree to a set of rules to live by then Kids under Cover is able to install a demountable studio in the rear yard of the home or perhaps the home of another relative or carer and the young person is able to stay at school and continue their education. This program has been so successful that it was renewed for a second year with additional funding.

    This shows that if there is a way to provide accommodation the rest can follow but as Felicity states you need the accommodation FIRST.

  3. Taxpayers should not have to fund any of this nonsense. If these people do not want to conform to Society and work for a living why should the taxpayer fund them. Domestic violence takes two and then there is the single mother with several children and different fathers why should others go to work to keep them. The Churchs are in favour the druggies and drunks and the single mothers so let them take care of them. it is disgusting in this current situation we need any kind of Social Welfare Agencies for parents who do not care about their children.

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