Physical Disabilities Lead to Hopelessness on the Streets

BY Victoria VanTol


Homelessness is often blamed on substance abuse, mental illness, or other conditions perceived as “treatable,” but neglected. A wrench is thrown into this line of thinking when we consider that around half of chronically homeless people are physically disabled.

Chronic homelessness is a term used by the US Interagency Council on Homelessness to describe repeated or extended episodes of homelessness. According to this agency, 43 percent of chronically homeless people suffered from physical disabilities in Los Angeles in 2017. This means there are significant barriers facing the physically disabled from getting and keeping housing.

It means our society isn’t addressing the root of the problem.

Physical disabilities can be present from birth, like blindness or epilepsy. One can also acquire a disability later in life. Examples of physical disabilities acquired later, and which often result in homelessness, are amputations and spinal cord injuries. These conditions leave a person dependent in some way on accommodations. They prevent them from accessing many jobs available to the rest of us.

Older adults are particularly at-risk for homelessness related to physical disabilities. In Los Angeles County, a study showed 89 percent of the older homeless population had physical disabilities. They were as follows:

These statistics show two things:

  1. older homeless adults usually suffer from multiple physical disabilities, and
  2. older homeless adults suffer disabilities far beyond what is normal for housed older adults.

A study from Harvard shows that only 41 percent of all adults ages 65-79 have a disability impacting self-care or mobility.

When a person suffers more than one type of disability, they face not only increased barriers, but loss of hope as well. As health becomes poorer and conditions more complicated, treatment costs increase. For homeless people, it’s a tunnel with no end in sight. It also begs the question:

Do disabilities cause homelessness, or is it the other way around?

The answer is both.

When people are disabled, they have more difficulty gaining employment. Transportation and mobility issues keep them from accessing services as well. Arthritis can prevent someone from writing. A stroke can leave someone unable to speak.

Medical bills due to physical ailments can begin a chain reaction that eventually leads to homelessness. Costly treatments, hospitalizations, and tests can run hundreds of thousands of dollars. For people without medical insurance, and often even for those that do, this debt can be insurmountable. Paying medical debts can win out over paying the rent or mortgage.

In terms of how homelessness causes disabilities, homeless people are three to six times more likely to become ill than housed people. Frostbite from exposure to cold and skin infections from unhygienic living conditions can result in permanent disabilities.

Finally, if a person is homeless, they probably are not getting adequate medical care, making existing issues even worse. Conditions like diabetes can become crippling or deadly when not treated properly. Not only do they deepen a person’s struggles with homelessness–they can dramatically reduce lifespan.

Isn’t There a Federal Program for This?

What people are referring to when they talk about receiving “disability” is either Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). Both are federal programs designed to help the aged and/or disabled. Each has a separate approval process and eligibility criteria.

In order to receive SSDI, potential recipients must have worked a minimum number of years. They must also have paid into Social Security to a sufficient extent while working.

SSI is available for people who have never worked or haven’t worked enough. Rather than work history, it’s based on financial need. A person’s income and assets will be used to determine whether they qualify for SSI benefits.

When SSI Fails

There can be surprising reasons for getting denied SSI/SSDI benefits. There are also factors limiting how much a person can receive, or prevent someone from applying at all. Being homeless comes with many complications to receiving disability. Shockingly, only 40 percent of homeless people qualify for SSI or SSDI.

Some homeless people qualify, but don’t get approved. Of the 40 percent who actually qualify, only 14 percent go on to receive benefits. Factors directly related to homelessness can play against the approval process. For example, living in a homeless shelter can mean less SSI money.

There are several reasons people get denied disability, despite being homeless and disabled. They include:

Solutions for Disabled and Homeless People

There are a number of ways physically disabled people who are homeless can still access help and be successful. However, it takes targeted interventions. Often it means supporting interventions that exist, but are not diligently enforced.

There is a national program, called SSI/SSDI Outreach, Access, and Recovery (SOAR), which is specifically aimed at people who are homeless or at-risk of homelessness who also have a medical or mental health impairment. Caseworkers work directly with applicants to walk them through the application process and help them complete paperwork. This is a program we can work to build awareness of and advocate for.

Other resources to promote are:

Of course, contacting your legislators and advocating for more accessible healthcare is always an option. If people are becoming homeless, or falling deeper into it, because of a physical disability, we have a responsibility to intervene. We can make life easier and more comfortable, even when a disability cannot be removed. Disability doesn’t have to mean an individual has no chance at success or happiness.

Victoria VanTol


Victoria VanTol holds a master's degree in social work. She is a therapist and freelance writer specializing in topics related to social justice and mental health.

Related Topics


Your support can create amazing change

Join the campaign to end homelessness by supporting the only newsroom focused solely on the topic of homelessness. Our original reporting — posted five to seven days a week — can also be found on Apple News and Google News. Through storytelling, education, news, and advocacy, we are changing the narrative on homelessness.

Invisible People is a nonprofit organization. We rely on the support of friends like you — people who understand that well-written, carefully researched stories can change minds about this issue. And that’s what leads to true transformation and policy change. Our writers have their fingers on the pulse of homeless communities. Many are formerly or currently homeless themselves. They are the real experts, passionate about ending homelessness. Your support helps us tell the true story of this crisis and solutions that will end it. Your donations help make history by telling the real story of homelessness to inspire tangible actions to end it.

Your donation, big or small, will help bring real change.


Disqus Comments Loading...