Mental Illness and Homelessness: Facts and Figures

Homelessness is a serious problem in the United States – an extensive study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development showed that over 500,000 people are homeless on any given night. This number has been steadily increasing since the 1970s, with homelessness becoming prevalent not only in major cities but also in smaller towns. Mental illness affects a significant proportion of the homeless population. A study by the National Institute of Mental Health found that approximately 6% of Americans are severely mentally ill, compared to the 20-25% of the homeless population that suffers from severe mental illness. Furthermore, 45% of the homeless population shows history of mental illness diagnoses.

Mental illness is also often cited as a major cause of homelessness, illustrating a causative relationship that extends beyond mere correlation. Unsurprisingly, mental illnesses can strain relationships with others, disrupt capabilities of self-care, and interrupt the routine of a daily job, which are all factors that can lead to homelessness. Also, people who are homeless and suffer from mental illness are more prone to problems in physical health due to neglect of self-care, leading to prevalence of respiratory infections, HIV, and substance abuse. Studies show that psychotic homeless individuals have a higher chance of being physically assaulted. A study in Baltimore showed that nearly one-third of homeless women had been raped.

Unfortunately, because of the increase in factors such as substance abuse, mentally ill, homeless individuals are more likely to be incarcerated. In fact, every single state in the United States arrests more mentally ill people than it hospitalizes. In one report, it was found that 17.3% of prison inmates with severe mental illness were homeless prior to being arrested and 40% were homeless at one point in their lives, compared to 6% of undiagnosed inmates. Homelessness and incarceration increases the risk of each other through a positive feedback loop, causing a cycle of hardship and uncertainty. This cycle that these individuals face between living on the streets and in prison causes emotional, financial, and physical stress for their families and the community at large.

Therefore, mental health programs should provide plans for both treatment and housing. It has been shown that both treatment without housing and housing without treatment are ineffective for homeless individuals with mental illness. Services that aim to achieve serious improvement need to address both treatment and housing. Supported housing programs in the past have offered services including treatment, education, peer support, personal finance, and living support. These programs have been shown to be some of the most effective, although the lack of financial support has been crippling for efforts to help the mentally ill, homeless population. State and city budgets have been drastically cut over the years, leaving the future of the homeless on the street up in the air.

By Mingu Kim '18 | Staff Writer