Pathways to Homelessness Among the Mentally Ill

Published in: Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, v. 35, no. 10, 2000

Posted on RAND.org on January 01, 2000

by Greer Sullivan, M. Audrey Burnam, Paul Koegel

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Background: Persons with mental illness are over-represented among the homeless relative to the general population, and mental illness is most likely one of many vulnerabilities that confer risk for homelessness. Method: This paper elucidates the pathways to homelessness for persons with mental illness by comparing and contrasting groups of mentally ill homeless persons, non-mentally ill homeless persons, and housed mentally ill persons drawn from RAND's Course of Homelessness (COH) study and the Epidemiological Catchment Area (ECA) survey. Results: Homeless persons share childhood histories of economic and social disadvantage. The mentally ill homeless appear to have a double dose of disadvantage: poverty with the addition of childhood family instability and violence. Among the mentally ill homeless, those who became homeless prior to becoming mentally ill have the highest levels of disadvantage and disruption; while those who become homeless after becoming ill have an especially high prevalence of alcohol dependence. Conclusions: Mental illness may play a role in initiating homelessness for some, but is unlikely in and of itself to be a sufficient risk factor for homelessness. In addition to outreach and treatment programs for adult mentally ill homeless persons, emphasis should be placed on interventions with children and on addressing more pervasive causes of homelessness.

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