Homeless 'prone to mental illness'

Homeless people are no more likely to suffer ill-health than the rest of the population, though they are more than twice as likely to show signs of mental illness, a study published today reveals.

However, even though those questioned were no more likely to be physically ill, they demonstrated a greater inclination to visit hospital casualty departments or see their GPs.

Over the past decade the number accepted by local authorities as homeless - defined as those who have not made themselves 'intentionally' homeless - has soared. The number of homeless in England rose from 53,110 in 1978 to 145,800 in 1990, while in London the number rose from 14,430 to 37,240 in the same period.

The survey, in the British Medical Journal, found that the temporarily homeless in one area, the North West Thames Regional Health Authority, were mostly young and female.

It also discovered that of those living in the bed and breakfast hotels and hostels in the nine local authorities covered by North West Thames, 65 per cent had dependent children under 16, and 54 per cent were on income support.

In spite of the stress of homelessness and poverty, only 10 per cent reported acute ill-health in the previous 14 days, while the level was 9 per cent in the rest of the region.

Long-term illness or disability lasting more than a year was reported by 46 per cent of the homeless, with 48 per cent in the region. When the question of long- term illness was restricted to problems which limited daily activity, the figures dropped to 33 and 34 per cent respectively.

There was a striking difference when the homeless were questioned about mental health. Forty-five per cent showed significant signs of mental illness, while in the region as a whole the figure was just 18 per cent.

The health characteristics of the homeless, especially where they were concentrated in one area, may mean additional services should be directed to the districts, the report says.

It says: 'Housing conditions influence people's physical and mental health, although the exact quantification of this relation is difficult . . .

'Homeless people experience the most extreme form of housing problems and, because of their economic and social circumstances, may make heavy demands on health and social services.'