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Homelessness is Caused by a Mental Health Condition...Ours

This blog introduces Athol Halle's full provocation piece which he developed as part of his Clore Social Leadership 2016 Fellowship.

Are we in denial about homelessness? The facts are out there - homelessness kills you. The average of death of a rough sleeper in England is 47, with one person dying whilst sleeping on the streets of London every two weeks.

Homelessness is growing. The number of people sleeping on our streets more than doubling since 2010.

Services are shrinking. Despite the rise in rough sleeping, there has been 20% reduction in the number of homeless hostel beds since 2010.

A lack of empathy – do we have a Personality Disorder? As a society, we know of the serious harms that homelessness causes to people, and yet we lack compassion and allow it to grow, before our eyes, under our feet. ‘An impairment in empathy: lack of concern for feelings, needs, or suffering of others.’ This diagnostic criteria for a personality disorder fits us well.

We waste our precious resources – is this self-harm? People are society’s most precious resource. Take Jimmy Carlson, whose Memorial Service was recently held at St Martins-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square. Jimmy spent over 20 years as homeless. He then spent the next 20 years as an inspirational advocate for the rights of homeless people, contributing to national policy, setting up client involvement groups and creating social clubs for people in recovery from alcohol and drug problems. On receiving his OBE in 2012 Jimmy said 'You would have walked over me in the street 15 years ago and thought I was a lost cause, just another drunk. However, I picked myself up and turned my life around and I have gone on to make a decent contribution to my community. Rough sleepers you see on the street today – with the right support they have a lot to offer too. Never give up on anyone.'

When we allow people to rot away on the margins of society, we all suffer from the lack of contribution people have to offer. A 2012 government study estimated up to £1 billion was spent as a result of homelessness across all government departments. We waste our money on dealing with the consequences rather than addressing the causes of homelessness. ‘Deliberate injury to oneself, typically as a manifestation of a psychological or psychiatric disorder.’ This dictionary definition for ‘Self-Harm’ fits us well.

There is a complex relationship between homelessness and mental health, on an individual level, both cause and consequence. Heriot Watt University’s in-depth research showed that for the majority of people, mental health problems preceded homelessness; whilst the experience of homelessness is clearly damaging - Homeless Link show that 80% of people in homelessness services had some form of mental health issue, diagnosed or undiagnosed. However, the stark truth is that if you are homeless you are nine times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.

Denial? Lack of empathy? Self-harm? As a society, when it comes to homelessness, we have a mental health problem. Acknowledging we have a problem is the first step to solving it.

Athol Hallé is Chief Executive of Groundswell - this piece is also published on their website.

Please download his full provocation piece here.

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