What is it like to be homeless?

PH being homeless like?

Most people are fortunate enough never to have to experience homelessness. But for those who do, it can be a very traumatic experience that is hard to escape from, damaging physical and emotional well-being along the way.

Here we look at some of the effects of the experience of homelessness on:

  • people staying in temporary accommodation
  • people sleeping on the streets ('rough sleeping')
  • children.

The experience of staying in temporary accommodation

Under current homelessness laws, local councils must ensure that suitable temporary accommodation is available for homeless households who are eligible for assistance, in priority need and unintentionally homeless, until settled (ie long-term) accommodation can be found. Such temporary accommodation can include:

  • housing owned by local councils
  • private rented sector stock
  • short-term housing leased from private landlords
  • hostels run by councils or housing associations
  • bed and breakfast hotels (B&Bs).

Long periods of uncertainty

Although this accommodation is described as 'temporary', in practice, homeless households may be forced to spend a long time in such living arrangements due to the current shortage of settled housing. A Shelter survey of homeless households found that about half the respondents had been living in temporary accommodation for a year or more. In London, this figure was 62 per cent. [1]

Traumatic experience

Homeless people suffer high levels of stress from their lack of control over their housing situation, combined with high levels of poverty and often poor living conditions. They often also feel very isolated, especially when temporary accommodation is provided at a distance from the household's local community and friends.

To make matters worse, many homeless people carry with them the distressing experiences they have suffered which led to their homelessness in the first place, such as domestic violence, relationship breakdown, fleeing persecution from another country, drug and alcohol misuse, and mental health problems.

Adverse health effects

Living in temporary accommodation can have very damaging health effects, both physical and mental. Surveys conducted by Shelter have found that:

  • 58 per cent of families in temporary accommodation (other than bed and breakfast) said their health had suffered as a result of where they were living [2]
  • people who had been living in temporary accommodation for over a year reported increased health problems and greater use of health services [3]
  • almost half of parents with children and 71 per cent of childless people said they were depressed. [4]

The experience of sleeping on the streets

Fear of attack

Many rough sleepers avoid sleeping in conspicuous locations for fear of being attacked, abused, robbed or moved on. In a study carried out by Shelter, rough sleepers reported feeling threatened not only by other members of the street community but by the general public too. Many of those interviewed also claimed to have been subjected to police harassment – this included being unfairly searched, arrested and repeatedly moved on.

Effects on physical and mental health

Many factors damage the health of people sleeping rough:

  • Cold, hunger and fear experienced by people sleeping rough disrupts their sleep, which in turn damages both mental and physical health.
  • Health is damaged through a lack of basic facilities for personal care such as bathing and washing clothes.
  • Homeless people often have problems with drugs or alcohol, made worse through being on the street.
  • 21 per cent of people interviewed in a Shelter study said that mental health problems were one of the biggest problems facing rough sleepers. [5]

The impact of homelessness on children

Homelessness leaves parents at breaking point and children’s lives in chaos. The effect of homelessness on children can be long-lasting. A study undertaken in Birmingham found that 40 per cent of the homeless children studied were still suffering mental and developmental problems one year after being rehoused. [6]

Effects on health

The insecurity and disruption of living in temporary accommodation clearly has a damaging effect on children’s health and well-being.

  • Poor housing conditions increase the risk of severe ill-health or disability by up to 25 per cent during childhood and early adulthood. [7]
  • Children in bad housing are almost twice as likely to suffer from poor health as other children. [8]

Effects on education

Children living in overcrowded conditions miss out on the space and privacy they need to play, do homework and sleep properly. Without room to grow, many children become sick or fall behind at school. Many children living in temporary accommodation face long, exhausting journeys to school, and are so tired they can’t concentrate in class. Moving into and between temporary accommodation can cause severe disruption to schooling.

  • Two thirds of respondents to a Shelter survey among homeless households living in temporary accommodation said their children had problems at school. [9]
  • Children living in bad housing are nearly twice as likely as other children to leave school without any GCSEs. [10]

Effects on emotional well-being

Homeless children never know where they will be moved to next and many develop anxiety, depression and behavioural problems along the way. Children living in cramped accommodation can experience hyperactivity, aggression, bedwetting, soiling and disturbed sleep patterns. [11]

Nearly half of respondents to a Shelter survey on temporary accommodation described their children as ‘often unhappy or depressed’. [12]

  • Mental health problems such as anxiety and depression are three times as common among homeless children who have lived in temporary accommodation for more than a year. [13]
  • Homeless children have six times as many speech and stammering problems compared with non-homeless children. [14]

Effects on life chances

Homelessness has an adverse effect on children’s educational progress because of problems relating to accessing schools, attendance, and the isolation that children can feel due to their circumstances. Children living in bad housing conditions also have a higher risk of developing long-term health problems.

  • Evidence suggests that homeless children tend to have lower academic achievements which can increase the likelihood of insecure or low-paid jobs or unemployment in the future. [15]
  • Long-term health problems affect employment opportunities later in life. [16]

With all these obstacles pitted against them during their formative years, children growing up in bad housing often spend the rest of their lives struggling to catch up. Evidence also suggests that those who suffer bad housing run an increased risk of homelessness in adulthood. [17]

Read more about children and families

 

[1] Mitchell, F. et al., Living in limbo: survey of homeless households living in temporary accommodation, Shelter, London, 2004.

[2] Credland, S. et al., Sick and tired: the impact of temporary accommodation on the health of homeless families, Shelter, London, 2004.

[3] Mitchell, F. et al., Living in limbo: survey of homeless households living in temporary accommodation, Shelter, London, 2004.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Shelter, Reaching Out - a consultation with street homeless people 10 years after the launch of the Rough Sleepers Unit, London, 2007.

[6] Harker, L, Chance of  a Lifetime: the impact of bad housing on children’s lives, Shelter, London, 2006.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Rice B, Against the Odds, Shelter, 2006

[9] Mitchell, F. et al., Living in limbo: survey of homeless households living in temporary accommodation, Shelter, London, 2004.

[10] Rice B, Against the Odds, Shelter, 2006

[11] Shelter, Homelessness Factsheet, p 13, updated October 2007

[12] Mitchell, F. et al., Living in limbo: survey of homeless households living in temporary accommodation, Shelter, London, 2004.

[13] British Medical Association, Housing and Health, Building for the Future, 2003.

[14] Harker, L, Chance of  a Lifetime: the impact of bad housing on children’s lives, Shelter, London, 2006.

[15] Harker, L, Chance of  a Lifetime: the impact of bad housing on children’s lives, Shelter, London, 2006.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

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