Homelessness makes you sick

Imagine trying to sleep in your car, or on the streets, or in a rooming house with people yelling in the halls, or threatening you in the kitchen.

There is no doubt that being without a home can seriously compromise your physical and mental health. Research has shown that more people develop mental health problems after becoming homeless than those who become homeless because they are unwell.

People without a home are deprived of essentials that negatively affect their health. It’s hard to sleep soundly, shower or eat healthy meals if you don’t have your own safe space to live.

Living in the poor quality accommodation common at the cheapest end of the rental market also takes its toll. People live in places infested with bed bugs, rodents or mould; where they are vulnerable to heat and cold, which can cause hypersensitivity, allergic reactions, asthma and flu-like symptoms.

Currently, few Australian states have minimum standards for rental housing. This means that people on low incomes have to make do with whatever is available in whatever condition. A national survey of renters revealed that 28 per cent of people who rent have said that they have issues with heating and cooling in their houses.

In Victoria, the new Residential Tenancies Amendment Bill 2018 will address many of these issues. However, the minimum standards for thermal efficiency are still being debated, and the legislation won’t come into effect until July 2020. Many other states are yet to pass laws to regulate for decent standards.

As well as compromising physical health, not having a home also impacts on people’s mental health.

People without a home often feel shame, hopelessness and despair. The experience of homelessness is extremely stigmatising – and people internalise that experience. They may also face hurtful comments from other community members.

Many people without a home are also unsafe – whether they are couch surfing, sleeping rough or in rooming houses. Unsurprisingly, living in fear of assault, being in an environment where there is a lot of conflict, or where you feel you may have to move on at any moment, creates a huge amount of stress and anxiety, and this takes a toll on people’s health.

Lack of affordable housing also means that women and children experiencing domestic or family violence can be effectively trapped, with nowhere else to go. Often refuges are simply full, and there are very few long-term housing options. Recent research highlighted how this particularly affects First Nations women in Australia, who are more likely to be on a low income and unable to afford a new tenancy, and who are also often without culturally appropriate support. It’s a no brainer that both mental and physical health are at risk when people have to live where they and their children are exposed to family violence.

It’s clear that housing people ends homelessness. It’s also clear that being homeless is negatively affecting people’s health. Australia urgently needs more quality social housing that is well located. AHURI has identified that nationally there is an immediate shortfall of 466,000 social housing properties, which will rise to 727,300 by 2026. If we want a population that is physically and mentally healthy, we need to help prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place by providing more social and affordable housing.