Asheville – Michigan State University’s Professor Emeritus Charles Cleland used to teach, “Poverty breeds poverty.” To illustrate, he would explain that, for example, when people are poor, they can’t afford good nutrition, and they may live in unhygienic circumstances. Consequently, they often get sick and have to miss work, or the kids get sick and miss school. Poor school attendance often corresponds to lower income potential, and missed days for a wage earner definitely lead to lower income. In addition, poor communities typically lack “successful” role models; all they know is poverty. So, the downward cycle repeats.
Another truism was that the longer a person lived out in the elements, the more likely they were to come down with mental illness. Any pre-existing PTSD would undoubtedly worsen while trying to sleep in the cold winter rain, feeling vulnerable to attacks by animals and fellow humans aside.Conventional wisdom these days teaches that homelessness and mental illness are a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Margot Kushel, leader of the University of California San Francisco Homelessness and Housing Initiative, disagrees. The CalMatters blog paraphrased her view as, “There’s little evidence of [a] correlation between mental health and homelessness. But once people are living on the street, they’re much more likely to turn to drugs or alcohol.”
Why should anybody care about these factoids? After all, oft-cited point-in-time counts by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development say homelessness is down nationwide, and has been, since the Great Recession (2007–2009). Actually, HUD’s latest report of 580,466 was for one night in January 2020, before the COVID shutdown forced masses out of work, income, and therefore housing. HUD has only released counts of sheltered individuals through 2021.
It’s hard not to see more people living the life of a downhearted hobo or partying like gypsies now; than when folks, burned by the fallout from the subprime heyday, lost their life’s savings and walked away from their homes with the door open. Even more incredulously, the HUD reports claim the homeless population was even higher in 2005 and 2006. Still, there’s a guy in a tent outside the window here, there are campsites along just about every dog trail, and panhandlers have priced trips to East Asheville out of the question, for example.
SchoolHouse Connection isn’t buying HUD’s numbers, either. The nonprofit working to educate youth out of homelessness observed that in 2017, when HUD counted 550,996 homeless persons, the US Department of Education reported 1,508,265 homeless students were enrolled in public schools. SchoolHouse Connection explains that HUD only counts people in shelters or out in the elements. Homeless people also couch-surf, stay at motels, or hide where caseworkers have not found them, and homeless people normally flit around from one accommodation to another.
According to SchoolHouse Connection, “Analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows that high school students experiencing homelessness are at dire risk of rape, assault, suicide, substance abuse, hunger, bullying, and other risks, whether they are sleeping in a motel, a car, a shelter, temporarily with other people or moving so frequently that they cannot identify a usual sleeping arrangement over a thirty-day period. Vulnerability to these harms was comparable across different homeless situations.”
Furthermore, it’s traumatic. Living alone outside, malnourished, and scrounging for food without access to medical attention is bad enough. Congregating at campsites is worse. Although it sounds judgmental, official agencies from the CDC to OSHA have provided guidance on how to handle human waste, drug paraphernalia, and aggression at these places.
Children born to homeless mothers are at risk of low birthweight even before they are born because they are unlikely to receive comprehensive prenatal care. According to the Menninger Clinic, “Mothers who are homeless have three times the rate of PTSD and twice the rate of drug and alcohol dependence of their low-income housed counterparts. Left untreated, these stressors can further damage their mental health, potentially triggering maladaptive coping and put them at risk of future traumatic events.”
Of 151 children in Massachusetts homeless shelters interviewed for a 2011 article in the American Journal of Public Health, about half “were found to have developmental lags, anxiety, depression, and learning difficulties, and about half required further psychiatric evaluation.”
In terms of youth and adults, New York University researchers concluded in 2008 that both homelessness and the severity of mental illness were directly related to criminal behavior. Unsurprisingly, unsheltered individuals were more likely to commit nonviolent crime, whereas shelter residents were more likely to commit violent crime.
Consistent with reason, this does not get better with exposure. In 2011, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration published a fact sheet that said 26.2% of sheltered homeless people had severe mental illness and 34.7% of sheltered homeless adults had a chronic substance use disorder. For the chronically, homeless, however, 30% were experiencing and over 60% had a history of mental health issues, and 50% were experiencing and over 80% had a history of substance use disorder.
The Menninger Clinic adds, “Also, they typically endure traumatic experiences that could potentially lead to mental health struggles, and certain environmental factors may increase the likelihood that they encounter future traumas…. The constellation of economics, subsistence living, family breakdown, psychological deprivation, and impoverished self-esteem all contribute to the downward cycle of poverty.”
Citing slightly higher statistics, Judge Glock of the Cicero Institute wrote, “The sad truth is that individuals on the street simply aren’t in any condition to seek help on their own… Allowing people suffering a mental-health crisis or debilitating addiction to live on the street almost ensures their eventual arrest or death.” This echoes the sentiments of former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo about how nobody was serving the homeless by letting them live on the trains.
In sum, as desperation compounds among those currently homeless, persons trying to run a business and protect their families may only expect crime to increase, and persons with more of a global, humanitarian perspective can expect mental illness to grow wider and deeper. A good writer would conclude this article with recommendations, but this writer doesn’t have the big answer—neither does anybody else—other than that the answer lies in each one of us contributing the little part we have, without which the puzzle just won’t be complete.