By Aishling Heffernan

Mental health issues and homelessness are lived experiences that bring with them heavy stigmatisation, socially politicised baggage, and a despondent disconnection from those that experience either or both events in their life from their family, peers and the wider community. In a Guardian article written by a practising NHS psychologist, mental health is reframed as a socio-political, environmentally inflamed issue, rather than one that is inherently focused on and cause by the individual. Dr. Sanah Ahsan stated in ‘I’m a psychologist – and I believe we’ve been told devastating lies about mental health,’ that:

“Antidepressants aren’t going to eradicate the relentless racial trauma a black man is surviving in a hostile workplace, and branding people who are enduring sexual violence with a psychiatric disorder (in a world where two women a week are murdered in their own home) does nothing to keep them safe. Unsurprisingly, mindfulness isn’t helping children who are navigating poverty.” (Ahsan, The Guardian, 6/09/2022)

When I became aware that femLENS would be running a campaign about homelessness, I wondered what happens at the intersection of gender (women), health (mental health) and homelessness. I had heard of the overwhelming level of men versus women that live unsheltered, and I had researched the substance abuse, the demographics and the impact of race on homeless men in college – but I knew next to nothing about women, their mental health and homelessness. To the data I went.

The Irish statistics on female homelessness are staggering. In 2018, the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) reported that 42% of homeless people in Ireland are female. This figure rises to 44% in Dublin. It is well over the European average, which is 20-33%, state the 2018 figures, and it’s also higher than the U.S. averages for women, which averages at 29% according to the Demographic Data Project to end homelessness. In the case of Irish female homelessness, the NWCI notes that women engage in more invisible forms of homelessness, “This means that women are more likely to stay with friends and family, or enter relationships in exchange for accommodation. Our current figures also do not include the many women and children living in domestic violence refuges or residing in direct provision centres.” (NWCI report on Women’s Health & Homelessness, 2018)

In 2001, an article by Tessler et. al., published in the journal of Social Distress and Homelessness in the U.S. looked at the differences in self-reported reasons for homelessness by gender. The research team predicted that substance abuse would be a main cause for men, while interpersonal reasons (domestic violence, for example) would be a primary cause for women. The article did note that common experiences between both genders cited were and are: “extreme poverty, unemployment and a shortage of housing”. For the purposes of this piece, I am interested in the following findings: 14% cited mental health issues as a cause for homelessness, and 15% cited someone no longer willing or able to help (with accommodation) as a reason for their state of homelessness. For men, of which there was a larger sample size studied, with more veterans than that of the female population studied, 23% of men cited mental health issues as a cause for homelessness, and roughly 13% cited someone no longer willing or able to help with accommodation. The article discussion makes clear an important finding:

“Many women find themselves in interpersonal relationships in which they are dependent on another person or persons for their (and their children’s) survival. When there occurs a major disruption in a dependency relationship, it is often their “home” that is in jeopardy. Thus, women are more likely than men to attribute their homelessness to interpersonal factors. This finding is consistent with their disadvantaged position in American society that, relative to men in the general population, is associated with less educational attainment, fewer occupational opportunities, and lower earned income, as well as with their greater responsibility for dependent children.” (Tessler et. al., Gender Differences in Self-Reported Reasons for Homelessness, 2001)

The article does distinguish interpersonal reasons (relationship breakdown, eviction) from mental health issues. However, mental health is a complex topic that is not relegated to individual psychological distress. If we examine the words of Dr. Ahsan, who uses Liberation Psychology (a form of psychology that decentralises the individual from mental health issues, and points toward a holistic diagnosis including social and environmental factors) as an example in her article, simply categorising interpersonal issues and mental health as reasons for homelessness does not quite ‘work’. They are intimately intertwined, one leading to the other. The topic gets messier when one is not native to their chosen country of residence.

A colleague of mine, who is not native to Ireland, opened up about her experience of being called back from India during her first visit to her family post-lockdown, at the risk of becoming homeless. In this instance, she “suddenly received a call from [her] landlord”. He had sold the house, and after five years of tenancy, my colleague was given no room to speak or to have an extension to find alternate accommodation. She had no prior knowledge of the landlord’s intent to sell.

“He threatened that he will go inside my room and start packing if I didn’t come back. I feel he would not have dared to do the same if I was a guy or if I was Irish… No system came to help. Not having a place to live can really mess up your mental health. I remember sitting in my office late as I did not want to go back to my friends place.”

In 2020, BMC Public Health released a finding titled, “Recognizing and responding to women experiencing homelessness with gendered and trauma-informed care”. The study found that: “Women’s experiences of homelessness are different from their male counterparts. Women have greater mental health concerns, higher rates of diagnosed mental health issues, suicidal thoughts and attempts, and adverse childhood trauma. The results should not be considered in isolation, as the literature suggests, because they are highly interconnected.”

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the homelessness crisis, it also fed it. There is one country, however, that had the lowest rates of homelessness since 1989 in 2020 – Finland.

In 2018, the World Economic Forum released an article, titled, ‘Here’s how Finland solved its homelessness problem‘. The article explains that, while most social housing policies operate on the idea that the very issues that can cause homelessness should be dealt with first, Finland’s policy is “home first.” The scheme is actually named ‘Housing First’ and it was introduced in 2007.

The homeless are given permanent housing on a normal lease. That can range from a self-contained apartment to a housing block with round-the-clock support. Tenants pay rent and are entitled to receive housing benefits. Depending on their income, they may contribute to the cost of the support services they receive. The rest is covered by local government.”

In addition to this support, those who were homeless have access to financial and debt advisors, and numerous other supports. How much does all of this cost, I hear you ask? The CEO of the Y-Foundation, a key player in Finland’s ‘Housing First’ policy spoke to the W.E.F. on this, “The savings in terms of the services needed by one person can be up to 9,600 euros a year when compared to the costs that would result from that person being homeless”.

Finland is also famous for its high tax rate – the OECD estimates that the average worker in Finland takes home 69.2% of their gross wage, compared to an OECD average of 75.4%. In Ireland, the OECD estimates that the average worker takes home 73.3% of their wages. One wonders what a 4% increase in tax for social housing could create here. Ireland’s coalition government has pledged €20 billion over the course of a decade, to introduce 33,000 new homes per year (by 2030, 90,000 of the final number will be social housing) to end homelessness in Ireland, as part of its ‘Housing for All’ plan.

While the plan does make mention of social housing, the media focus lies heavily on a rental or buying market. Housing for all is incredibly important, but I am pondering what a non-specific social housing scheme (despite sub-specification for it) means for those who are homeless in general, especially for women who are homeless – will there be a pipeline of support for those who were homeless, once they are housed? Will the promised 90,000 social homes come to actually bear the 42% female residents who have been homeless, or will they be changed as plans progress to accommodate those first time buyers or long-time renters?

42% of women in Ireland are homeless, and, in Dublin, this number rises to 44%. These statistics do not take into account women who are sheltered by family, or partnerships (that they may, or may not, want to be in). Whether you class interpersonal or mental health issues differently, the striking resonance between family and partner abuse, eviction, low wages and unsuitable or non-tailored social schemes, and homelessness, put women in a uniquely vulnerable place when they become homelessness. However, these root causes do not need to be dealt with before (all) female homelessness itself can be dealt with – as Finland has shown.

Finally, I cannot help but wonder – would you take home a little less pay, if we could establish social systems that truly eradicated homelessness, that made society safer for vulnerable women and families, and that helped the mental health crisis along the way? The truth is, that it is not an easy question with rising inflation, rising tides and rising mistrust in government, if anything, it is a question to reflect on, to find out where the mistrust lies – and if we can move past it to create a system that supports all its people, native, non-native, gendered or non-gendered. Everyone deserves sanctuary.