There are a number of psychological factors involved in the reality of homelessness. It is often viewed as an individual problem instead of a complex and structural one. Many observers refuse, or just fail, to see the complexity of homelessness, and dismiss the homeless as lazy, irresponsible, or morally deficient. “They made a choice to be homeless” is a common and poorly informed opinion that is rather prevalent in casual discourse forums like comment sections on social media posts and online articles.
All too frequently, mental illness and addiction issues are factors in a person experiencing homelessness. Many of those mental illnesses are common to a lot of people — veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), people suffering from PTSD resulting from violent experiences, grief at the loss of a loved one — but some perhaps lack access to resources or a reliable support network of friends and family. A lack of access to mental health resources is the prevailing reason why a mentally ill person will end up homeless — a structural, not personal, problem. Appropriate and effective therapeutic counseling is a resource that can be difficult to acquire.
Another difficult-to-acquire resource is prescription psychological medication. It is often cheaper and easier to “self-medicate” with alcohol, illegal drugs, or misuse of prescription- and over-the-counter drugs than it is to acquire therapeutic counseling and/or medication when needed — another structural problem. Thus we see that a lack of available mental health resources can lead to additional problems like substance abuse. And the substance abuse is likely to lead to a criminal record, which forms yet another roadblock to upward mobility by restricting what kinds of services, employment, and housing one might acquire following criminal charges and incarceration.
The homeless themselves are frequently blamed for their condition, a stigma that may create psychological disorders, or exacerbate existing ones. The circumstances surrounding a poor person transitioning to homelessness can be traumatic. Losing one’s business, job, house, apartment, and so on are tough blows to the ego, affecting one’s self-esteem. The loss of possessions and living quarters, whether owned or rented — especially in a capitalistic society — can be an extremely traumatic event.
A person often ends up homeless, too, by fleeing domestic violence; they may endure violence and trauma in a relationship, then face additional trauma by leaving behind everything just to escape and survive. Whether economic or violent in nature, transitioning to homelessness can cause PTSD, depression, anxiety, or make worse a pre-existing condition that may previously have been at a manageable level.
When new or magnified psychological issues are compounded with the social stigma a homeless person is likely to encounter on the street, permanent psychological damage may occur. Without access to adequate resources, temporary afflictions may become long-term issues if not treated.
Dignity is quite difficult to maintain when faced with stigma and degradation from shelters and other resources that are supposed to help, from passers-by, or from strict laws and ordinances designed to expunge you from society.
According to a psychotherapist contributing to this post, with repetition these “numerous indignities can cause [a homeless person] to lose their humanity,” and negative — and potentially permanent — consequences arise when stigmatized people “stop being treated like humans.” Eventually, a homeless person might internalize the stigma, labels, and stereotypes, and buy into them. This can create a new, or reinforce an old, bleak worldview. This type of self-loathing, or “giving up,” can further decrease a homeless person’s chance of upward mobility.
The bottom line is that those who are experiencing homelessness are in a really rough spot, and have lived through horrors that many people can’t even begin to imagine. Friends, family, and our healthcare system have failed them. They still deserve kindness and compassion. You can be the person to show it to them.