What Impact Does Homelessness Have on Mental Health?

Trauma of the first night homeless and impact on mental health

The Pressures Homeless People Face to Secure Their Own Survival Every Moment, Every Day Are Traumatizing

Some percentage of people who are homeless or housing challenged or priced out of housing are mentally ill. Others are not. What happens to mentally ill patients that end up on the street? What happens to people who have no history of mental illness yet end up homeless?

For homeless people, the trauma of becoming homeless is enough to impact anyone’s mental health. Finding help to manage that trauma is extremely difficult when you’re homeless. Perhaps if someone has already had an ongoing relationship with a mental health professional, they might be able to continue. But what happens to people who need that care after becoming homeless?

It’s hard enough to find a competent professional that really clicks with you, but what happens when you add a perceived layer of stigma? Homeless people may fear mental health professionals will have the same prejudices against people priced out of housing, leaving people who desperately want help in the cold.

Invisible People’s founder, Mark Horvath, interviews people experiencing all types of homelessness. During these interviews, he asks people to share what their first night of being homeless was like. Most report that it was really frightening, especially for women but also for many men. Having experience with homelessness, I know it’s true – it might be the most frightening thing you ever do. It is the ultimate fear of the unknown, the worst feeling you can imagine.

I did all sorts of crazy things before chronic illness robbed me of my health and ability to live normally. I once found myself lost in the woods at twilight (which turned to night) without a flashlight. I was not scared – a bit apprehensive but not scared.

However, the first night I was in my van as a homeless person, I was terrified!

In the woods, I felt safer with bears, coyotes, and wolves than I did in my van, where I might be harassed by police or drug addicts. In addition to muggers and thieves, I feared being arrested by police because so many places are criminalizing homelessness. Being arrested and possibly imprisoned means getting an apartment or job later will be extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Being robbed when you are homeless means losing stuff you need (or precious items you want to keep) and having no money to replace those supplies. Either way, you’re screwed, and there is very little help to be found.

The first night I was out in my van, I was at a 24-hour rest stop. When I saw about five police cars gather there, my heart was in my mouth! They all went in for coffee and stood chatting outside my van. Thankfully, they got a call and dissipated after about 30 minutes but trust me; I was scared that whole half hour!

I also witnessed some of the seediest, shadiest-looking people meeting up, leaning into the other guy’s car window, and then putting something in their pocket. This is not the world I was raised in or lived in. As an autistic adult, as a female alone, I never felt so ill at ease.

Regardless of how healthy one is, it is easy to find one’s mental health is deteriorating before long. 

When you are homeless, you must stay vigilant throughout the night unless you find a very safe place, which is rare. You try to sleep during the day, but it gets so hot in the vehicle in summer and much of spring and even autumn. There’s also usually a lot of noise.

Good luck finding trees to park under because most places you try to park won’t have a tree anywhere in the lot. You are sleep-deprived in only a few days, and your adrenaline and cortisol levels are super high from constantly being in “flight or fight” mode.

You start to feel that you will never get out of this and realize that no one can help you. If they can, they won’t. You begin to feel a sense of despair that is not “catastrophizing” and not “all in your head.”

You have lost your home, sense of security, and possibly a lot more, such as an ID, income, access to services, and any peace of mind you may have ever had. Even a good sleep is impossible.

For many, suicide becomes a logical escape plan. This should not be confused with chronic depression, a disease affecting millions of people, even if they are wealthy and secure. No, this is very different. Becoming homeless is like trying to survive in a war zone – especially for vulnerable people, such as women, older people, disabled people, and mothers with children.

You would think homeless people would stick together because you’re all in the same boat. But with homelessness, it’s more accurate to say that we’re all in our own boats on the same river.

Sometimes you can befriend somebody kind and decent and help each other, but by no means should you think that will be the norm.

Even showing somebody what you have in your tent or vehicle could make you vulnerable to being robbed. Just imagine what it’s like to be in a world where you’re on high alert 24/7, chronically sleep deprived, and poverty-stricken. The lack of access to help and the inability of most people to travel to where those services are makes getting mental health support extremely difficult for so many.

After people get housed, they live with PTSD and anxiety from the experience. Many live with the anguish of knowing that the rate of becoming homeless again is very high. As a result, they often don’t unpack or furnish an apartment because it’s viewed as highly impermanent.

Other people display hoarding characteristics as a reaction to being deprived of things they need. It can take a long time of being in a stable situation to regain a sense of peace. But with the surge of people being priced out of housing, I believe few people will ever get the help or peace of mind they need.

Homeless Loki

Homeless Loki


Homeless Loki is a disabled homeless person also on the autism spectrum currently homeless in upstate New York

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