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I was homeless for a year – the solution is not more housing, it’s better mental health services

For us to really break the cycle of homelessness, funding has to be put in at the bottom to fix problems as they arise, instead of waiting until someone is facing a night on the streets

Hannah Green
Thursday 20 February 2020 15:22 GMT
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There are an estimated 320,000 people classed as homeless in the UK
There are an estimated 320,000 people classed as homeless in the UK (Getty Images)

No one chooses to become homeless – to live on the streets, in hostels or temporary accommodation. These are not convenient options, they are last ditch solutions which no one should have to face. Having a safe roof over your head should be a basic human right, not some commodity that only the lucky or privileged can buy. I should know – until very recently I myself was classed as homeless.

I spent a total of 403 days in the system after leaving the family home due to suffering with severe PTSD from childhood sexual abuse and a sexual assault while at university. After sofa surfing for a few months I ended up in the local Nightstop service, followed by supported lodgings, hostels and temporary flats.

The government recently promised to build 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s, but will this solve the problem? In one word, no. Building houses will solve nothing – they cost money and it just so happens that someone who finds themselves with nowhere to sleep tends to have little or no money. It’s their last option.

For us to really break the cycle of homelessness, funding has to be put in at the bottom to fix problems as they arise, instead of waiting until someone is facing a night on the streets and it’s too late for prevention.

This starts by properly funding the mental health system. I was extremely lucky to be able to access mental health services early on, due to still being registered in a different borough. That came in the form of specialist trauma therapy. But not everybody is so lucky – the majority of people I met while I was homeless had been through unimaginable things, yet were left unsupported, sometimes for years. Huge waiting lists mean patients, including children, are left without adequate care and are reaching crisis point before receiving any help.

For individuals who have experienced trauma, it can be extremely difficult to hold down jobs and form lasting relationships, which can make staying in long term accommodation almost impossible. Interventions by mental health professionals therefore need to be made early on.

Help also often comes too late for people struggling with addiction. I have lost several friends to drug and alcohol abuse within the past year, and witnessed several people I know who were already struggling end up on the streets. Mental health support might have helped them deal with the trauma that led to their addiction. Individuals don’t choose to become hooked on drugs, alcohol, sex or gambling, but it’s the only way they’ve been able to deal with their problems in the absence of access to professional support.

There are an estimated 320,000 people classed as homeless in the UK right now. This includes individuals staying in hostels, bed and breakfasts and other forms of temporary accommodation, not just those sleeping on the streets.

For every person who experiences homelesssness for three months or more, there is an average annual cost of £4,298 to NHS services, £2,099 to mental health services and £11,991 per person in contact with the criminal justice system.

The cost of homelessness to the taxpayer is estimated to be £20,128 per person per year whereas a successful early intervention would cost just £1,426.

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It would be far more economical, and less chaotic for individuals, to fund mental health services properly, provide adequate trauma interventions and to support addiction services more sufficiently.

Homelessness is not the problem; inadequate support for mental ill-health, addiction and trauma are. It’s easier to fund and tackle them head on.

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