The impact of homelessness on health

There is no confirmed number for how many people are classed as homeless across the UK. One reason for this is that homelessness is recorded differently across the country and also many homeless people do not show up in official statistics at all. Government street counts give a snapshot of the situation but not an overall view of the situation in the UK. The latest figures from these street counts showed that almost five thousand people are sleeping rough across England on any given night. This is a 15% increase on last year and more than double the amount in 2010 – nearly a decade ago.  

Teenagers and young adults account for 25% of households seeking help for homelessness across the UK. In comparison, people aged 65 and over make up 4% of all households known to be homeless. This data from April 2017 to March 2018 exemplifies the vast disparity of homelessness across the UK, but of course these statistics vary depending on what source is used.  

Homelessness and poor physical health go hand in hand. It’s no surprise that not knowing where one may be sleeping from night to night can have an effect on one’s health. A report found that homeless people are 17 times more likely to be a victim of violence with much of this perpetrated by members of the general public. More than a third of rough sleepers asked had experienced some form of physical violence and more than one in 20 have been the victim of sexual assault whilst homeless. The prevalence of infectious diseases is also reported to be much higher amongst the homeless population than the general population. These diseases include tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and hepatitis A, B and C. The infection rates are often higher due to compromised immune systems, poor nutrition and hygiene and the frequent overcrowding of shelters. Furthermore, drug use and what’s referred to as survival sex contribute to this issue and makes avoiding infectious diseases difficult.  

In terms of health conditions, more than eight out of ten people experiencing homelessness are reported as having a chronic health condition. These can include musculoskeletal disorders and chronic joint pain. These can be worsened by living on the streets and not having access to the medications needed to treat them or even healthcare for a diagnosis. Some people use drugs and alcohol to cope with the pain, leading to the development of other health problems.  

Without a doubt, it is understood that homelessness can lead to the development of new health issues and exacerbate pre-existing conditions. It has been reported that up to 70% of homeless young people suffer with mental health problems and 33% have self-harmed at some point in their lives. Young people experiencing homelessness often face complex risks because of their situation. Government sources report that they are often at a higher risk of sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies and can come under pressure to exchange sex for food, shelter, drugs and money. Many homeless young people have themselves reported suffering with drug and alcohol problems.  

Studies have suggested that aside from worsening existing health conditions, older people experiencing homelessness are more likely to suffer from depression or dementia. The risk to health for people who have lived on the streets for a long length of time is so great that the average life expectancy of a homeless person is 47 years for men and 43 for women. This certainly contributes to the low proportion of over 60s who are homeless in national surveys.  

Homelessness, it would appear, is still a growing concern and one which is strongly felt throughout the country. Evidently in Norwich, the number of homeless people is rising. One can only hope that help is accessible for those who need it, especially in the winter season that is fast approaching. 

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Olivia Johnson

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November 2021
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