August 25, 2009

Lifestyle is killing the homeless

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Following a string of deaths of homeless people in Alaska and British Columbia, Lisa Demer of the Anchorage Daily News released a comprehensive report on why homeless people are dying: lifestyle. At least four of the 12 deaths this summer were related to chronic drinking, a habit that often forced people who did have homes back onto the street when landlords told them they couldn’t bring drinking buddies around anymore.

Is this lifestyle a choice? Many people end up on the street because they can’t get a job, or start drinking to deal with the death of loved ones or other stresses. Anyone could end up in this situation. For people on the street, the most important factor is finding the next drink, meal, or shelter – they’re not worrying about long-term consequences of their actions, because they’re not sure there will be a long-term for them. They’re focusing on meeting basic survival needs.

Researchers in Victoria, B.C., found the number one issue of concern for homeless injection drug users was security – physical safety and shelter – not infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C, reports Tom Sandborn of The Tyee. Once people have a safe place to stay that helps them battle their addiction rather than kicking them out, their stress levels and risky behaviors decrease. They are much more likely to use condoms and practice safer drug habits, or quit entirely.

Security also affects likelihood of death by outside factors, such as violent attacks. California ranks second nationwide with 22 attacks on homeless people last year, just behind Florida with 30 attacks, reports Margie Lundstrom of the Sacramento Bee. In California, 10 of the victims died. Many of the attackers are young and male.

The National Coalition for the Homeless says attacks are more pronounced because homeless people are so visible. They’ve been lobbying for years to add violent attacks on the homeless to the definition of “hate crimes.”

Providing homeless people with housing before targeting their risky behaviors is one option InvestigateWest mentioned before. These “housing first” programs are already seeing success in Vancouver, Portland and Seattle.

– Emily Linroth

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