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Homelessness rapidly ages the homeless

Homelessness rapidly ages the homeless

It’s likely no surprise to anyone who’s seen a shambling figure on a city street corner mumbling to himself, but homelessness and mental health disorders are intertwined. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) states 20 to 25 percent of homeless people in the United States experience severe mental illness in some form.

It’s also no surprise homelessness brings with it many health risks. According to studies cited by the American Psychological Association, homeless people are more unhealthy than the general population, having greater rates of hypertension, diabetes, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. Drug overdoses among the homeless are also common. Finally, sleeping outside – particularly in areas with long, cold winters – can be dangerous.

These problems are likely contributing to another issue faced by homeless people. A study published this year in The Gerontologist, the journal of the Gerontological Society of America, found the problems of aging appear to hit homeless people far sooner.

Meeting the problems of aging early

Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, studied 350 homeless people aged 50 and over in Oakland. The study’s group had a median age of 58. Among the study’s findings:

  • Around 40 percent of the study’s subjects reported having difficulties with daily activities
  • 45 percent of the subjects had impaired vision
  • 48 percent of the subjects were incontinent
  • A quarter of the subjects were cognitively impaired
  • A third of the subjects reported having fallen at least once in the past six months

When compared to 80-year-olds who were housed, the study’s subjects also reported having a more difficult time eating, dressing, navigating a job interview and managing their money, in addition to other tasks.

In a Gerontological Society of America press release, study lead author and UCSF professor Rebecca Brown, M.D., said, “Usually, we think of geriatric conditions as affecting much older adults in their 70s, 80s and 90s. We found these conditions were very common in homeless adults with an average age of just 58. We studied a very vulnerable population. Our systems need to be responsive to the challenges that these older adults have.”

An aging population

The National Coalition for the Homeless cites studies showing the proportion of what it calls “older persons” – people aged between 50 and 64 – in the homeless population has grown. It’s a population not quite old enough to use safety nets like Medicare, Social Security and housing benefits, all of which become available to people in the early to mid-60s.

It’s a trend that was reflected in a University of Pennsylvania study published in 2010. According to the study, people born in the years between 1954 and 1965 appear to have a higher risk of homelessness. An additional study published in the journal Seniors Housing & Care reported the median age of single homeless adults increased from 37 years old in 1990 to nearly 50 by 2010.

What causes homelessness?

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, there are two factors driving the rise in homelessness: Affordable rental housing is becoming less available, and the poverty level is rising. The Center for Poverty Research at the University of California, Davis reports 46.7 million people lived in poverty, or 14.8 percent of the population.

Substance abuse and mental health disorders also play a large role in homelessness. SAMHSA reports in 257,300 of homeless people in 2013 had either a severe mental illness or a substance use disorder.

Drug abuse and mental health disorders are both treatable, but getting treatment is only the first step. A leading provider of mental health and substance abuse treatment, the Sovereign Health Group understands this. Our staff of compassionate professionals treat their patients as individuals, using scientifically-backed treatment methods to ensure the best chance at a lasting recovery. For more information, please contact our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Brian Moore is a staff writer and graphic designer for the Sovereign Health Group. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics across Sovereign’s portfolio of marketing and content products. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which’s he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author and designer at

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