Changing the Narrative: 3 Reasons Why We Should Care for the Unhoused

Written by Zachary Davis, ShowerUp Nashville Volunteer

Homelessness is a challenging subject to examine. Public perception influences how we discuss the unhoused, ultimately limiting the positive attention given to this population. Instead of dwelling on the circumstances that led to an individual’s change in housing, as many of us do, focusing on how we can help is far more beneficial. Below are three compelling reasons that the unhoused deserve our attention:

1. Rates of mental crisis and addiction are alarmingly high among the unhoused

Statistic: A 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) found that of those living in Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH), over half suffered from either “a mental health condition or had [a] dual diagnosis that includes both mental health and substance abuse.”

Explanation: PSH is a U.S. government program designed to help those undergoing chronic homelessness afford and obtain safe living arrangements. This change in living conditions allows many suffering from mental crises and addiction to experience much-needed stability. However, not everyone has access to these programs, nor do they solve every issue. The unhoused with addictions and mental illness need specialized attention that they cannot receive without community intervention. This gap in care is why service to this population is critical.

2. Those experiencing homelessness have higher rates of fatal disease

Statistic: The National Health Care for the Homeless Council (NHCHC) published an article representing data from the 2009 Health Center Patient Survey, which showed that those without shelter are twice as likely to have a heart attack compared to those with stable housing. Additionally, the study revealed that the unhoused are twenty times more likely to contract HIV. Shockingly, the NHCHC also reported that the average life expectancy for the unhoused is 12 years shorter than the overall U.S. population. They surmised, “simply being without a home is a dangerous health condition.”

Explanation: Not only does homelessness leave individuals in unsanitary and unsafe situations that can cause disease, but once someone is ill, the unhoused have few ways to care for themselves. Expanding medical care for those experiencing homelessness is key to lengthening life expectancy and treating everyone humanely. Preventative measures may also help benefit the community by reducing disease levels.

3. Veterans disproportionately experience homelessness

Statistic: According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, their January 2022 annual Point-in-Time Count found that 33,136 veterans experienced homelessness in 2021. In addition, the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans (NCHV) estimates that roughly 13% of adults without shelter are veterans, which is disproportionately higher than veterans’ 7% representation in the general population.

Explanation: While every person without shelter should be treated equally, veterans have made an extraordinary sacrifice for their country and should be able to rely on the government to meet their basic needs after their service ends. Unfortunately, government programs fall short for many veterans, and this population often finds themselves without shelter. With such an overwhelming representation in the data, there is a crucial need for the community to support veterans, particularly those experiencing homelessness.

People without shelter—many of whom are veterans—often battle addiction, mental illness, and adverse medical conditions without a proper support system. To change this harsh reality, we have to get to work. However, first, we must begin this process by understanding the unhouseds’ unique challenges and then combat the negative perceptions that stop us from taking action. Only then will we be prepared to fill in the gaps that so desperately need addressing.