In the United Kingdom alone, over 280,000 people face the economical and societal hardship of homelessness 1. Our homeless population face a variety of struggles each and every day, from securing a safe place to sleep to finding food that is both safe and healthy. The 35% of homeless people unable to find refuge in a shelter are forced to weather the elements each and every day, whether it be extreme temperatures, rain, or snow. However at the centre of it all our homeless population also faces a bigger problem: stigma.
Alongside these personal hardships, our homeless population have been caught in a snare of stigma and social isolation. In our major cities, homeless people fade into the background – outsiders within their own homes. They face persecution daily from authorities and fellow citizens alike which only worsens the burden of social isolation. This renders our homeless population vulnerable to a wide variety of threats both external and internal – from violence to mental health crises.
One of the most prevalent and harmful stereotypes surrounding homelessness is that anyone suffering from homelessness is a substance abuser. As a result people are less likely to be empathetic to people suffering from homelessness, in some cases even becoming confrontational. Whereas it is true that a sizeable portion of the homeless population, around 26%2 in some areas, suffer from addiction, it should be treated as a mental illness and a result of the hardships that come along with homelessness rather than a cause.
In many countries, especially those without universal and free healthcare, mental and chronic illness run rampant through our homeless communities. As a result, people suffering from homelessness often turn to illegal substances of alcohol as a way to cope with symptoms. Once a homeless person becomes dependent on a substance, recovery and treatment can be difficult, if not impossible, as organisations treating mental illness often won’t help homeless people with substance issues and vice versa.
It is this stigma that can make facing homelessness even more difficult for people. Outside of facing verbal and societal discrimination, acknowledging the stigmas associated with homelessness can make it difficult for those affected to reach out for help 3. This is especially true for our youth.
As a result, people facing homelessness become too ashamed of their housing situations to reach out for help. This further increases the chances of mental illness while also establishing an environment where homeless people struggle to acquire the things they need, such as basic necessities like food or clean water.
Ending homelessness won’t be easy, but we can start today by taking the first step and erasing harmful stigmas and being more empathetic to those who may be struggling.