Lack of housing has profoundly negative effects on the mental health of women and girls who are homeless. Research shows that - compared to housed women - women who are homeless are more likely to experience severe mental health issues – including PTSD, depression, and anxiety – and that these challenges are often linked to factors such as childhood abuse or neglect and violent victimization on the streets. Disparities are evident within homeless populations as well. In a national survey of over 1,100 homeless youth across Canada, young women who experienced homelessness had significantly poorer mental health than cisgender young men, and a higher suicide attempt rate (59% vs. 39%).
Let us repeat: almost 60% of young women on the street in Canada have attempted suicide at some point in their lives.
When we think about mental health difficulties, we often think about individual causes and personal suffering. However, research points to a number of public system failures that contribute to mental health distress amongst women who are homeless or precariously housed. For example, studies show that:
- Child apprehension on the basis of poverty or housing status contributes to profound distress, and can contribute to depression and suicidal ideation
- Fear of child apprehension by mothers who are homeless can deter women from seeking the supports and services they need, thereby contributing to increased mental health challenges
- There is a lack of gender-informed transition housing programs, treatment services, and addiction programs for women (see The State of Women’s Housing Need & Homelessness in Canada)
- Lack of culturally-sensitive, trauma-informed and anti-oppressive mental health services for Indigenous women, girls, and gender diverse peoples contributes to mental health challenges and other harms for these groups (see Calls for Justice 3.1 – 3.7 in the Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls)
- There is a lack of collaboration between emergency shelter services, mental health and addiction treatment services, and medical services contributes to gaps in service provision and challenges for women who are homeless and experiencing mental health challenges
These systemic failures point to some of the solutions that are needed, including significant preventative upstream investments in gender sensitive, mental health supports for women and their families before they experience homelessness.
For women who are homeless and struggling with mental health and substance use challenges, The Community Living Room program has been shown to be an effective model. Key program elements were identified as: “(1) peer support, (2) flexible services and resources, (3) supportive program leadership, and (4) gender-sensitive services provided by women,” all within a harm reduction approach.
As the second wave of COVID-19 deepens in parts of Canada, it is critical that we ensure access to high quality mental health supports for women, girls, and gender diverse people who experience homelessness. Given evidence of the detrimental impacts of the pandemic on mental health, we must make sure that access to help does not depend on one’s housing status.