The lack of proper and stable housing puts people in physical danger. Not only are they more susceptible to diseases, but they’re also vulnerable to theft and assault from living on the streets. More importantly, mental illness, in addition to adverse childhood experiences and substance use, are risk factors for homelessness.
Indeed, it’s estimated that 20% to 25% of the homeless population in the U.S. suffers from severe mental illness, which is alarmingly higher compared to the 6% recorded data from the general public. Studies similarly show that more than 92% of mothers who are homeless have experienced severe physical and/or sexual abuse during their lifetime, experiencing three times the rate of PTSD and twice the rate of drug and alcohol dependency as their low-income counterparts. Another 57% from the same population specifically point to domestic abuse as causing their current living situation, solidifying the connection between domestic violence and homelessness.
Unfortunately, the lack of access to adequate resources has made homelessness an unbreakable cycle that people struggle to overcome. This is why social support through the assistance of social workers is essential to empower individuals to break the cycle of homelessness and attain a better quality of life.
So how can social workers help the homeless?
By providing counseling services
Social workers assist people in various ways. First, they can help individuals experiencing homelessness and grappling with mental health or substance abuse issues by listening to their concerns. For instance, local public libraries in the United States, like San Diego and Cambridge, have started to hire social workers to assist and support people experiencing homelessness in the area. In fact, Marie Mathieu is one of the professionals working at the Cambridge Public Library. She narrated how her main role on the job is to make connections with people in need. This includes referring unhoused individuals to nearby places where they can get social services, listen to people dealing with substance use disorders, and connect them to possible treatment options.
Although local library staff members are trained to connect individuals with necessary resources and information, they’re not well-equipped to provide social work services to address mental health issues. Maryville University details how social service workers are trained to connect people with services, such as substance abuse counseling, because of their expertise in facilitating communication with individuals from different backgrounds. They can also effectively empathize with people, allowing them to understand situations from another person’s perspective, which enables them to figure out the best support and resources per person. Through these counseling sessions, those in need will feel less helpless about their situation since they have someone to rely on, and they can be directed to services that will help them move forward.
By helping individuals get housing assistance
Another aspect where social workers lend their assistance is connecting individuals without homes to temporary housing and transitional shelters, where they can safely stay until they can get back on their feet. One example of social work in housing opportunities is demonstrated in our article ‘Point-in-Time Count Tells Part of the Story.’ We shared how, in the past year, Alliance partners have expanded the number of places people can access the homeless services system, allowing more individuals and families to engage with services. The Alliance has also discussed how to spend homeless services funds dedicated to the rural Marion-Polk region so that the goal of ending youth homelessness can be achieved.
This goal is beneficial since ensuring that people live in stable housing is essential to promote mental health as well. As a matter of fact, a study by a group of researchers from Stanford University found that the overall well-being score of unhoused participants was significantly lower than those of housed participants. They elaborated that unhoused participants reported lower levels of social connectedness, which means they have less access to social support and companionship, feel more socially isolated and lonely, and have a hard time meeting social expectations. Moreover, unhoused respondents indicated a lower experience of emotions, translating to more frequent negative emotions.
By helping people have a comfortable place to stay, social workers help those affected feel less isolated from the community and reduce the stigma and discrimination associated with homeless individuals who also have mental health conditions.
By connecting individuals to job opportunities
Finally, social workers can help people experiencing homelessness by connecting them to job opportunities. They can be transitional jobs that will allow them to gain work experience first, which will also become their advantage when looking for work in the future. Additionally, social workers can direct some people to individualized placement support programs that will support individuals with severe mental health conditions into employment.
Similar to lack of housing, joblessness can influence one’s mental health. In an article by U.S. News on the health effects of unemployment, they explained how being unemployed and unable to earn money to support yourself and your family can affect your well-being. They mentioned that it impairs your sense of control, identity, and self-esteem, which are all important for maintaining good overall health.
Eventually, this may lead to chronic stress, anxiety, or depression and will impact your physical health in
the long run. That’s why assisting individuals experiencing homelessness is necessary not only to
improve their living conditions but also to boost their mental health.