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Exploring a link between Learning Disabilities and Homelessness

Updated on May 25, 2018
Homelessness. Things shouldn't have to be this way. Image courtesy of Mister GC at
Homelessness. Things shouldn't have to be this way. Image courtesy of Mister GC at

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.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Learning Disability

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.

When people care about people wonderful things happen...


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    • Kimberleyclarke profile imageAUTHOR

      Kimberley Clarke 

      2 years ago from England

      Thank you for stopping by Chef! Wakey is a lovely part of the world!

      Firstly, a massive thank you to you and your partner for volunteering with Mencap. They are an absolutely fantastic organisation. I had cause to contact them for support the week before last because of disability discrimination...that's another story! Though the agenda is to get people with LD into employment right now, just having polite bar staff who don't kick them out for being 'different' would be a start. Once the issue is sorted with the brewery, I'll probably blog about that.

      But yes - you've hit the nail on the head with the church aspect! Huge spaces - they could even just be opened up each night for might take some clever management, but giving people some small kindness could really help them to get control of their lives.

      My Mum volunteers at the local church, and she does her shift on the soup run each week. She can't see it from my perspective, that the church could do even more. With winter around the corner - it is just too awful to imagine what people will go through.

      Like you say - there's a long way to go. Well done to you for helping to make a change where you are.

    • chef-de-jour profile image

      Andrew Spacey 

      2 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Thank you for this article on a pretty complex issue.

      My partner and I volunteer with Mencap and have both worked with vulnerable people for years. What is lacking in the UK is the political will to stir up emotion over the issue of homelessness and those with learning disabilities. The church could also become far more active vocally. It could turn a few of its old churches into quality hostels/accommodation to start with, instead of flogging them on the market and saving the profit in a huge bank account!!

      Many charities do great work but they fight against the tide of apathy and often downright hostility! It's amazing to think that there are some who despise the homeless and those with a disability of any kind. Sad. Thankfully the majority are sympathetic.

      There's a long way to go.

    • Kimberleyclarke profile imageAUTHOR

      Kimberley Clarke 

      3 years ago from England

      Thank you so much for stopping by Chantelle! And thank you for your kind feedback. I've just finished a shift, working with a man who has a profound Learning Disability. I then popped to the shops on my way home, and passed by a man, sat cross legged on the pavement. Talking to himself. It is raining heavily here today. It is so heartbreaking. Thanks again for stopping by, I really appreciate your feedback.

    • Chantelle Porter profile image

      Chantelle Porter 

      3 years ago from Chicago

      A wonderful article with such heart and an impassioned plea for people to do more. I had no idea people with LD had such a short life span. That is so tragic. Here in the US we have miles to go before our vulnerable citizens get the help they really need.

    • Kimberleyclarke profile imageAUTHOR

      Kimberley Clarke 

      3 years ago from England

      Thank you so much for stopping by, gmwilliams. I have recently started to work with people who have profound learning disabilities. Happily, they are well taken care of by a structured support system. It has given me a greater insight into the whole subject. People who have mild learning disabilities are certain not to get the support that they may need, and could be dismissed as having a 'lifestyle choice' to be homeless. A basic human need is to feel safe and sheltered. While some people may choose to live off grid, living on city streets, dumpster diving for food and not knowing what your day will bring must be incredibly damaging. In the UK we have the Human Rights Act - Article 5 states 'Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person'. I'd suggest that we fail every homeless person - security of person cannot be achieved if a person lives in a constant cycle of unknowns. Anyway, thanks again for stopping by! Much appreciated.

    • gmwilliams profile image

      Grace Marguerite Williams 

      3 years ago from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York

      What a well researched article. What you have stated is so true. People with learning disabilities are profoundly disadvantaged. There need to be more educational services for learning disabled children to have a moderate success level.


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