Each night, thousands of people are homeless in the United States.1 Abandoned buildings, campsites, cars, shelters, extended-stay motels and occasional couch space in the homes of friends or relatives is the nighttime lodging for these men, women and children. While homelessness is often viewed as only an urban phenomenon, rural and suburban communities throughout the country include growing populations of homeless people.2
The typical homeless person is often perceived as a street dweller with severe emotional illness, yet this stereotype does not hold true for the majority of people who are without homes.3 De-institutionalization and the concomitant lack of affordable housing, jobs, accessible treatment and targeted community resources contribute to homelessness, but are not its sole cause. In the last 15 years, the prevalence of homelessness has risen among vulnerable populations, including veterans, families with young children and unaccompanied youth, among whom ethnic and racial minorities and the extremely poor are overrepresented. Higher than average rates of trauma, untreated substance abuse and emotional and behavioral disturbances affect many.4
Over the past year, the economic downturn has resulted in a surge of newly homeless across every demographic, with greater numbers of low- and middle-income people finding themselves without the wherewithal to maintain housing. Rates of depression and anxiety are believed to be high among homeless people, regardless of their prior socioeconomic status.
What can and should psychologists do in response to pressing and unmet mental health needs of this heterogeneous population?
The Presidential Task Force on Psychology's Contribution to Ending Homelessness is investigating unique contributions that psychologists can make in efforts to reduce and remediate homelessness. The task force members are Chair Norweeta G. Milburn, PhD; Beryl Ann Cowan, PhD, JD; Seymour Gross, PhD; Allison Nicole Ponce, PhD; Joseph Schumacher, PhD; and Paul A. Toro, PhD; and staffed by Keyona King-Tsikata and Toni DeSalvo-Alvano. These psychologists are from different parts of the country and work with homeless populations as researchers and clinicians. As part of its mission, the task force is identifying specific needs and best practices in working with identified populations of homeless people: children, families, substance abusers and the pervasively mentally ill. They will also explore international perspectives in working with homeless people.
One focus of the task force's work is gaining an understanding of the ways APA members are involved in homelessness-related activities. The group plans to survey members in the next few months about their work with the homeless. The task force will then recommend ways that psychologists can use their training and expertise to work with homeless individuals and groups; create and evaluate programs; and influence policy to improve the mental health of homeless people of all ages. Enlisting the resources of experienced clinicians and researchers; training graduate students to recognize and respond to the mental health needs of homeless persons; and collaborating with other professionals, agencies and community stakeholders should result in a sustained effort to prevent homelessness where possible, and to provide appropriate psychological supports where it already exists.
Let me hear from you—engage—get involved. This is YOUR APA. Contact me anytime by e-mail.
National Coalition for the Homeless. Who is homeless? (2008, June). NCH Fact Sheet #3. National Coalition for the Homeless: Washington, DC.
National Alliance to End Homelessness. (2009). Geography of homelessness: Part 1: Defining the spectrum. Washington, DC.
Burt, M.R. (2001). What will it take to end homelessness? Urban Institute: Washington, DC.
Zima, B.T., Wells, K.B., Benjamin, B., & Duan, N. (1996). Mental health problems among homeless mothers: Relationship to service use and child mental health problems. Archives of General Psychiatry, 53, 332–338.