Tackling Homelessness From a Psychological Standpoint

word collage of depressed man

What do you need?

That question has taken on a new twist in the current stay-at-home environment. In people’s never-ending endeavor to discern between wants and needs, there’s nothing like some self-isolation to add clarity as to what we really need. It turns out we don’t need some of the things we thought we couldn’t live without. Champions League football, I’m looking at you. Other items that we may have taken for granted have never seemed more vital. So, what do you need?

Pandemics notwithstanding, it can be frustrating, if not debilitating, when one’s needs lie beyond their reach. Here at Invisible People, we talk a lot about needs. There are tangible needs, like affordable housing and better shelters. And there are intangibles, like improving the narrative around homelessness and how housed society needs to experience a culture shift with how we view people suffering from insecure housing. Sadly, many of these needs still go unfilled.

Case in point: counseling.

Without making any sweeping statements about the homeless population and mental health, it’s safe to say we all need help to stay balanced from time to time. That goes for both people who are housed and those who are not. Sometimes this help comes in the form of a good friend’s listening ear, advice from a colleague who has experienced the same problem that we’re trying to navigate or the calmness and sage wisdom of a parent or grandparent. When things are particularly challenging, we may seek a professional who has received specialized training in how to help people navigate mental health issues, past traumas, etc.

Mental health isn’t a homelessness issue. It’s a people issue.

While some of us have the fortune of being mentally sound and stable, able to endure any number of challenges and setbacks, others of us need the help of a professional. We’re fortunate to live at a time when mental health is less of a taboo. Seeking help is no longer relegated to hushed conversations in secluded rooms.

This shift is a good thing. As the World Health Organization states, “there’s no health without mental health.”

Despite increased dialogue around mental health, accessibility to mental health experts remains out of reach for far too many.

People often initiate counselling or therapy after a significant stressor presents itself and hopefully before it transitions into anything life-altering. With the help of a professional, they’re assisted to get their lives back on track, change their viewpoint, develop skill sets to deal with said stressors, etc.

The problem for many homeless people, however, is the stressor is related to poverty and housing. That poverty also prevents them from getting the help they need. The result? Unresolved stressors can spiral out of control and lead down the rabbit hole of homelessness.

Note how our own stereotypes reinforce this:

The classic image of a homeless individual is the unkempt, weathered man walking through city streets. Meanwhile, a common stereotype of someone receiving psychotherapy is the middle class woman going to a private practice in the Upper West Side, sitting in a large office with attractive decor.

It’s difficult to conjure up an image of the unkempt man going to a 3:30 p.m. session with Dr. So-and-so. But what if looking at homelessness through a therapeutic lens was exactly what the doctor ordered.

Seeing Beyond the Surface

Dr. Nick Maguire, a clinical psychologist in the UK, offered an explanation as to why addressing homelessness from a psychological standpoint may be key for some:

Part of the problem of homelessness, as well as our misguided attempts to curb it, has to do with “how we understand rough sleeping. It is understood to be caused by social factors … or individual factors. Either society is to blame or the individual is. This polarized understanding promotes social solutions, such as housing, or interventions that try to ‘fix’ people, such as medication, or sweep them off the street.”

To clarify, Dr. Maguire is saying while certain things contribute to homelessness, such as a lack of affordable housing, it may be worth our time to consider why people are homeless. Therapy can help get to the root of the problem.

For the vast majority of homeless people, their situation is a result of a dramatic rise in housing costs, insufficient wages and poor decisions at a municipal level that place greater importance on profits instead of affordable housing and accessibility. Supply falls far short of demand and people are literally left outside.

However, a portion of the homeless population faces an additional complexity that needs to be resolved. For example, a tragic number of homeless individuals were victims of early childhood trauma and/or sexual abuse. These unimaginable breaches of trust can have long-lasting, major impacts on a person’s ability to cope and carry on “normal” social interactions. If left unresolved, a person carrying these burdens can struggle to fit in with those around them.

“A psychological understanding can be useful to find ways to tackle the factors behind behavior that leads to loss of tenancy. Clinical psychologists are trained to do this.”

If this sounds like playing the long game, you’re right. Far-sighted communities are focusing on psychological services to help chronically homeless clients with tremendous success. They’re bringing those needed tools within reach of those that need them the most.

Some people who seek help have a long history of damaged relationships. Others had parents that didn’t give them the needed tools to deal with life’s challenges. Or they went to schools that were less than sympathetic with learning and behavioral problems. These are regular people who faced everyday problems but perhaps lacked the support system to help them navigate these issues.

Counselling can help identify needs and address them. Health professionals hope that tending to these needs will help identify people at risk of becoming homeless and help those who already are.

Micah Bertoli

Micah Bertoli


Micah Bertoli is a Medical Laboratory Technologist and freelance writer. He is passionate about volunteer work, spending much time helping displaced people settle into their new environments.

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