• Could homelessness, and its depressive or isolating features, cause mental illness? (iStockphoto/Getty Images)Source: iStockphoto/Getty Images
Contrary to popular belief, mental illness is not the main cause of homelessness in Australia.
Nicola Heath

28 Jun 2017 - 10:56 AM  UPDATED 10 Jun 2020 - 11:30 AM

Picture in your mind a person who is homeless.

The image you conjure up is probably a rough sleeper with a mental illness – the stereotypical homeless person.

But it’s a stereotype that fails to reflect reality. Rough sleepers account for just seven per cent of homeless people. Most people who are homeless (44 per cent) live in severely overcrowded dwellings. And mental illness is not the primary driver of homelessness in Australia – that would be domestic and family violence.

In fact, homelessness is just as likely to be the cause of mental illness than the other way around. A 2011 study of homeless people in Melbourne found that 15 per cent of the sample had a mental illness before becoming homeless. Another 16 per cent developed a mental health condition after becoming homeless.

“The claim that most homeless people are mentally ill sends the wrong message to policy makers about the services that are needed to assist homeless people,” write the authors.

Blaming mental illness overlooks the social and structural problems that cause homelessness – family violence, relationship breakdown, housing affordability, employment issues, race and inequality.

Zoe Walter, a registered psychologist and lecturer in Health Psychology at University of Queensland, says homelessness is often misrepresented as a choice.

“Focusing on choice ignores those structural constraints that actually give rise to and shape the homeless experience. We are saying it is an individual’s problem rather than society’s problem.”

As the ABS website notes, the reality is that “homelessness is one of the most potent examples of disadvantage in the community.”

Why does homelessness cause mental illness?

By their very nature, the circumstances that lead to homelessness are major causes of stress and anxiety. You may be leaving foster care, prison or a violent relationship, and most likely will be experiencing financial hardship – all factors that “tie into our mental health,” says Walter.

Another issue is lack of social support. “You become excluded from mainstream society, and you're more likely to be isolated from other people in your social support network like family and friends,” she says.

There are also physical problems associated with homelessness. “You're more likely to be a victim of violent crime, [and] you're more likely to experience chronic health problems after becoming homelessness.”

While it is not the main cause of homelessness is Australia, mental illness can pose a threat to a person’s access to housing. In 2017, SBS Voices published the story of Heidi, whose struggles with mental illness saw her live on the streets for a short period. Now in her mid-forties, Heidi said she felt like an “extra-terrestrial” when she was sleeping rough.

Once you are homeless, it can be difficult to access mental health services. “In Australia, there's an increasing recognition that there needs to be more communication between homeless and housing services, and health services,” says Walter. “The two are quite separate, with homeless services obviously referring to health services, and health services trying to connect people with homeless services.”

In an age of widespread rent and mortgage stress (17 per cent of Australian households spend more than 30 per cent of gross income on housing costs), Walter believes social housing is one of the most effective preventative measures against homelessness. In an ideal world, in-house social workers and counsellors would provide residents of community housing the support they need to manage mental health issues in a stable environment. “Housing is necessary for mental health, and mental health can impact on a person's tenancy,” says Walter.

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Filthy Rich & Homeless airs over three nights – June 9, 10 and 11 – on SBS at 8:30pm and SBS On Demand after broadcast.

Filthy Rich & Homeless Season 3 will also be subtitled in Simplified Chinese and Arabic and will be added to the subtitled collection on SBS On Demand, available immediately following its premiere on SBS. Last year SBS launched the Chinese and Arabic collections featuring a range of diverse dramas, documentaries and current affairs programs to enable growing multicultural communities to engage with local and international stories in their first language.

Australians tune in for 'Filthy Rich & Homeless' season 3
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