Homelessness: A UK public health issue?

Being homeless isn't just about losing your home - and in this article I explore whether homelessness is a UK public health issue which needs tackling.

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In the title of this article I ask ‘is homelessness a UK public health issue?’ and I aim to answer why, in my opinion and backed up with research, it is.

Homelessness is something that affects everyone, whether we realise it or not. This is either because we have been homeless ourselves, know someone who is or has been, or there is a chance of you becoming homeless. Homelessness is increasing in the UK at an alarming rate with 141,190 households accepted as needing housing assistance by their local authority in 2015/16 (DCLG, 2016).

Does that mean it’s a health issue?

I have a personal experience of homelessness, and that was when I was 18 and living in the West Midlands. After moving out of my parent’s home at 17 because of family issues and wanting to leave the area because of bullying – I found myself in a volatile relationship which ended because of the mental abuse and controlling behaviour towards me.

Whilst being in college, I was made homeless because I had no secure place to stay, was sofa surfing for 3 months – and in that slept one night ‘rough’.

As a general rule, only 10-14% of the homelessness crisis we see in this country is seen on our streets – with the other 86-90% being the ‘hidden homeless’. The hidden homeless are people who are ‘sofa surfing’, living in hostels or supported accommodation or won’t have a secure, stable roof over their head when they leave hospital or prison.

As a society, we generally think that a homeless person is a scruffy bearded man, on a street corner or doorway, with a dog and a can of lager – and although some homeless people are this, it should not be accepted as the ‘face’ of homelessness.

Many have and still say to me ‘couldn’t you go back home?’ and the answer is ‘yes’ in theory but did I want to? No, I was not in a mental, physical or financial position to go back home. So there was me at 18, homeless for 3 months over November 2008- January 2009 and then housed in supported accommodation for just over 2 years afterwards. The effects of my homeless experience still affect me today, with the most chronic period being the 9 months after being housed – triple the time of the actual event.

I had a physical, mental and emotional breakdown during that 9 months and my body went into full shutdown. I lost my appetite, started losing my hair, couldn’t physically move, didn’t sleep and my friendship circle dropped from many a year previous, to just 1 by the time February came.

The health issue of an individual, or many?

But this isn’t just my experience because compared with the general population percentage of 28, 41% of homeless people have a long term physical health problem. Again, compared with only a quarter of the population – 45% of the homeless population have a diagnosed mental health problem.

The most scary fact in ‘the unhealthy state of homelessness report 2014’ says that 36% of the homeless population surveyed had taken drugs in the last month – a 31% increase compared to the general population. St Mungo’s in London also states that homeless people are more likely to die below 50:

Image result for average age of death for homeless
St Mungo’s Broadway, London state the average age of death for homeless people in the UK.
It can’t be ended, but we have a responsibility to reduce it

During my experience, I wasn’t taking drugs and nor did I have a long term physical health as classified in the report. My mental health and physical state for the 9 months were not in the same state as the general population. However, I was in severe need of help. I was admitted to emergency counselling, put on Income Support and by the time I was housed – had dropped out of college.

You might be thinking that my issues got sorted by intervention. I have hair back on my head, I’m moving about and I can hold down a sleep regime – but the legacy of it has carried with me forever.

It’s taken me years to come to terms with the trauma of losing my home, my relationship, my friends and control of my body – it still scares me when I think of it today. But so many people are going through what I went through everyday, and although different circumstances as to how they became homeless play a factor, it doesn’t remove the fact that this type of trauma is a public health issue.

Homelessness is always occurring and it will never end completely. We have a shortage of housing, we have a shortage of intervention, we have a shortage of services, we have a shortage of support – but most importantly we have a shortage of education around the issue.

Not enough people know about homelessness in its simplest form and this makes it harder to prevent a crisis. But none of this should stop our drive as humans to reduce the health impact that homelessness has on our society, but mostly the individuals involved.

Where is your next home?

I am a social activist and campaigner on raising awareness of homelessness – and the main focus of my campaign rests on letting people know about the real facts about homelessness, how close it is (research says 60 days, but I say even less sometimes) and just how easy it is to fall into being a homeless statistic.

Discussing and highlighting the pathways to homelessness is my next big campaign and will be rolling this out in the coming weeks under the hashtag ‘#WhereIsYourNextHome?’.

The 8th anniversary of my homelessness experience (and 1 year anniversary of launching my campaign) is coming up this November, and the pain is going to come back like always – but I use that pain to advocate on behalf of the many people who are homeless a lot longer than a quarter of a year and who have lost their voice because society oppresses them through healthcare, housing and finance services – let alone societal hierarchy.

If you would like to read more about my homeless experience or my campaign work please do check out my blog at www.hugosugg.wordpress.com, search #HugosEarthquake on social media or drop me an email at hugo@hugosearthquake.org and I will be happy to hear from you.

I would like to say a huge thank you to United Politics for inviting me to write this article, and I hope you found it useful.

Hugo Sugg, 26, Worcestershire

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