Exploring a link between Learning Disabilities and Homelessness
Most of the people who are likely to read this article will not have a learning disability, and will not be homeless. Even if we have no personal direct relationships with these topics, we cannot fail to be aware of them.
It is estimated that around a million people have a learning disability in the UK. Mencap, the UK’s voice of learning disability, defines it as ‘a reduced intellectual ability and difficulty with everyday activities – for example household tasks, socialising or managing money – which affects someone for their whole life’.
The support that each individual needs all depends on the severity of their learning disability. However, we know that general trends show that people with a learning disability are likely to die younger than the general population (the average age of death is 47 years old), are likely to suffer from some kind of abuse (including sexual, physical or financial) and more than half of them are not known, therefore not supported, by any services.
A learning disability can manifest before birth, genetically, presenting as Downs Syndrome or Fragile X. Drug and alcohol abuse by the mother can also harm the baby’s development in the womb. Oxygen deprivation during birth can lead to brain damage and, after birth, neglect or injury can also lead to brain damage.
In all, factors before, during and after birth can lead to a person having a learning disability, which will often be discovered once a child starts school. Even after a diagnosis, there is no way to know how a learning disability will affect a person in the future.
Around 50% of people with a learning disability may have another health issue. Approximately 25% will have a physical disability and around 30% will have epilepsy. People with a learning disability are also at risk of developing mental health problems.
Encouragingly, with the right support, people who have a learning disability can lead independent and happy lives.
Homelessness isn’t just what we see when someone is sleeping in a shop doorway. Rough sleeping is one aspect, though there are many thousands of people who are living in overcrowded and unsuitable housing.
According to the UK’s Crisis charity, it is difficult to gather a conclusive figure to represent how many homeless people there are in the UK. We can only estimate that around 3000 people may sleep on the streets each night. 280,000 people made an approach to their local authority to ask for homelessness assistance in the last year. There are 35,000 bed spaces for single people in hostels. We have no idea about how many ‘hidden’ homeless people there are, how many people who sofa surf, or how many do not qualify for local authority assistance.
Becoming homeless could happen to anyone. Those who become homeless may do so for a wide range of complex reasons. There are factors that may make it more likely for someone to end up with no home, including a relationship breakdown, leaving an institution such as prison or care, and having physical and mental health problems.
Our understanding is ever growing...
Is there a link between Learning Disability and Homelessness?
I’d be amazed if there isn’t.
People with learning disabilities have trouble managing everyday tasks. One way that this can manifest is in a difficulty managing money. A person with a learning disability may be more likely to experience mental health issues. We already know that there are links between depression and people self-medicating with drugs or alcohol.
I am not saying that every homeless person has a learning disability.
What I am saying is that we should care, and care more than we do now. If we see people who are homeless as people who are vulnerable, and deserving of our help, we may value them more highly than we do now. We know that we should treat people who have disabilities with dignity and respect. We should treat everyone with dignity and respect. Walking by, ignoring rough sleepers, is treating people as sub-human.
Recent news stories of ‘anti homeless spikes’ in London, and posters advising people not to give money to ‘beggars’ is atrocious. As a society we seem to view people who are homeless as somehow less. Perhaps scary. I’ve done it. And I’m ashamed. When did the cognitive dissonance set in, thinking that letting someone live a life less than mine seem ok?
In my home town, the council is thrilled to be backing a fancy new vanity project. Brighton's very own 'i360'. Something for the tourists to marvel at. Another place for our many homeless residents to bed down under at night.
It seems to me that, by allowing our fellow man to live a life of homelessness, we are all overlooking our responsibilities. As a society, we should help the most vulnerable.
Whether we fully understand their vulnerability, or not.