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JRF - New study uncovers 'deep roots' of homelessness

Nearly half of rough sleepers have a history of substance misuse, institutional care and street activities like sex work, new research has found.

The findings come from a two year study published today, are the first to systematically reveal the extent to which homelessness amongst single adults is linked with other problems such as mental illness, alcohol dependency and experience of institutions such as prison. It also makes clear the challenges facing services if they are to do more to help people with multiple problems.

According to the 'Tackling homelessness and exclusion: Understanding complex lives' report, a survey of 1286 adults using homelessness, drug and other services, found that:

  • 98% had experience of being homeless;
  • 70% had experienced of drug and alcohol problems;
  • 67% had a history of activities, such as begging, prostitution and shop lifting;
  • 62% had spent time in prison, child care or other institutions; and
  • 47% had a history of all four.

Mental health problems were also widely reported, with four in five reporting a history of anxiety or depression and over a third saying they had attempted suicide.

The report, which draws together the findings of four separate studies, also examined what had happened to the people before they became homeless.

Among the factors associated with more complex experiences were:

  • being male
  • being aged between 20 and 49 years old (especially 30s)
  • having experienced physical abuse or neglect, not enough to eat at home, or homelessness as a child
  • having parents who experienced drug, alcohol, domestic violence or mental health problems
  • having poor experiences of school such as truancy and exclusion
  • having lived on welfare benefits for most of their adult life

The report also found that before people with complex problems seek help from homelessness agencies, they have often already been in long-term contact with mental health, drug, criminal justice or social care services.

The authors of the 'Understanding Complex Lives' research have called for a number of measures to prevent homelessness and to prevent people with complex needs falling through the cracks, including:

  • Greater understanding of the impact that a troubled childhood can have and more support for families who find themselves without a home.
  • Recognition by drug, mental health and other services that they have a role to play in preventing homelessness
  • More preventative support targeted at the critical points in a persons journey towards living on the streets
  • Greater coordination between services, with agencies working together to meet the individual needs of clients.
  • More work to target the needs of homeless men in their 30s.

Commenting, Jenny Edwards CBE, Chief Executive of the umbrella body Homeless Link said:

This research reveals the deep roots of homelessness. It shows that traumatic experiences in childhood and problems in later life can lie at the heart of why someone ends up on our streets.

This should act as a wake-up call to services. We must not miss the opportunities that could prevent homelessness. This makes sense for both individuals and society."

Commenting Julia Unwin CBE, Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said:

The lives of homeless people are often incredibly complex, so it is vital that the services they need reflect this. If we’re serious about preventing and tackling homelessness we need to target prevention and tackle the worrying level of distress faced by the homeless population.

We need more flexible, personal services which reflect the complexity of individual's lives so the government can achieve the vital ambition of ending rough sleeping."

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