Individuals experiencing homelessness are one of the most marginalized populations of the Canadian society. In general, those who identify as LGBTQ, Indigenous Canadians, members of racialized groups, and immigrants are at a greater risk of homelessness (1).
These individuals often suffer from poor mental health. Research suggests that compared to the general population, Canadians experiencing homelessness are far more likely to experience high stress levels, low self-esteem, loneliness, hopelessness, worthlessness, social stigma, self-harm, substance abuse and more trouble dealing with mental health issues (2).
According to a report by the Mental Health Commission of Canada on Canadians experiencing homelessness, an alarming 25% to 50% individuals suffer from a mental illness (3). Substance abuse, suicide, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder are the major mental health disorders reported in the literature (2). The statistics get more disturbing as we look at mental illnesses among youth experiencing homelessness. A pan-Canadian survey involving 1103 young people from 10 different provinces and territories illustrated that 85% of this sample displayed severe symptoms of distress. 42% of the participants reported at least one suicide attempt and 35% experienced at least one drug overdose (4).
It is important to mention that mental illness is both the cause and effect of homelessness. The unpredictable nature of mental health issues can impede an individual’s ability to maintain steady employment. Additionally, a strong stigma and discrimination against these individuals can further limit employment opportunities. This may eventually lead to financial insecurity and an inability to pay for housing. Sadly, the cycle continues as the now homeless person experiences a heightened risk for the emergence and worsening of mental health disorders (2).
The Canadian society clearly needs to do more to address this serious issue and many great solutions have already been proposed. For example, “Housing First” is an evidence-based approach endorsed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada that aims to provide immediate housing to individuals experiencing homelessness. It takes a non-judgemental, and community-integrated approach in aiding an individual’s recovery. This approach is shown to increase housing stability, community functioning, and quality of life of this population (5). Here at McMaster, COPE is working with a similar initiative, “Indwell”, that takes the same compassionate approach in providing housing for homeless individuals with mental health issues. Indwell is a charity that provides subsidized housing for people seeking a home in the Hamilton region. Indwell serves people of all races, ethnicities, sexes, abilities, sexual orientations, and gender identities. Currently, Indwell supports more than 600 people (6). COPE provides Indwell with student volunteers, who spend time with Indwell’s tenants and form meaningful connections with them. Volunteers connect with Indwell tenants by chatting over video calls, sending pen pal emails, and organizing events such as dinners, trivia nights, and more. These one-on-one relationships contribute to better mental health for Indwell’s tenants.