The headaches of homelessness


Why do people end up homeless?

Take a moment to say out loud three reasons that quickly come to mind. Did you think of poverty? Loss of job? Mental illness? Maybe you said to yourself the reason is laziness or the desire to live off of the hard work of others.  Some say that homeless people choose to be homeless.

Did brain injury even cross your mind in this exercise? In fact, according to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council as many as 50% of homeless people have experienced at least one brain trauma in their lifetimes. Studies done in Toronto, Milwaukee and Boston connected brain trauma to homelessness in anywhere from 48 to 60% of cases.

The Centers for Disease Control provides a simple definition of a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). It is a dysfunction caused by a blow or jolt, or a penetrating injury to the head. People who come from an abusive home, have been in a serious accident or served in a war zone are at high risk for having brain injury.

Brain injuries can range from mild to severe,  although the full extent may not be evident for some time after the trauma.

The kinds of mental impairments TBIs can cause reduce a person’s ability to manage daily activities, and without adequate medical and family supports it’s easy to see how one might slip into homelessness.  Consider common symptoms: TBIs can disrupt our brain’s ability to perform higher level activities necessary for a productive life.  Problems with memory and concentration will interfere with the ability to learn new things, follow directions or to study for college exams. An employer may become frustrated with an employee who is easily distracted and can not follow through on tasks. A person with slowed thinking may be perceived as unintelligent. Slowed reaction time could be dangerous in some jobs.

In addition to intellectual processing people with brain injuries can suffer a change in temperament. TBIs have been associated with increased irritability, impulsivity and inappropriate behaviors that may alienate others.

In short, brain traumas can devastate the ability to stay employed and maintain relationships.  Next time you see a homeless person remind yourself they may have an invisible, but very real reason they are homeless.

Our society tends to treat homeless people as invisible. It’s a new way to think about homelessness, that invisible injuries lead to invisibility.

The irony is all too visible.

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