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A new report has today (14th February) revealed the extent in which poor health can be caused by rough sleeping – as well as stressing the high health needs of women experiencing homelessness.

Conducted by Groundswell and funded by the Greater London Authority, the research is aimed at understanding more about the health conditions women are facing and how their housing issues affect their health.

Researchers who have experience of homelessness were involved in all stages of the research process – a “crucial factor” in the success of the project.

According to the findings, participants had long histories of homelessness in which physical and mental health were contributing factors to their situation.

It also finds:

  • Participants often had long and complex histories of homelessness; 65% had been homeless for more than a year, and 42% had been homeless at least once before
  • The three main reasons participants cited for becoming homeless included relationship breakdown and/or family breakdown, physical health issues and domestic violence
  • 59% either agreed or strongly agreed that their health had contributed to them becoming homeless
  • Reasons participants became homeless were often a result of gender inequality; 39% had experienced

Most participants were also said to be living with several health conditions that were aggravated by living conditions and the stresses of being homeless.

74% had a current physical health issue, and the conditions which showed the biggest increase upon homelessness were issues with joints, bones and muscles, blood conditions, heart conditions and problems with feet.

Participants also spoke of how they were affected by allergies, skin conditions, bed bugs, difficulty breathing and back pain from their accommodation.

The stress of many of those interviewed also said that their situation resulted in headaches, losing hair, stomach pain, irritation in their eyes, rapid heartbeat, panic attacks, chest pain and early menopause.

Issues with mental health were also common among participants and in many cases, caused self-harm and/or addiction – with 64% expressing that they were experiencing mental health issues compared to 20.7% of the general population of women.

In terms of access to related healthcare services when falling ill, participants were often reliant on the support provided by healthcare services and not-for-profits but highlighted a need for additional specialised support.

The findings revealed the structural and practical barriers to accessing healthcare, for example, not having money to get to appointments, inflexible appointments, being refused registration and a lack of support to get to appointments.

45% of those interviewed either strongly agreed or agreed with this statement “healthcare services understand the issues I face as a homeless woman” and most participants (73%) felt that they could be honest with staff in healthcare services.

As reported by 24housing last month, research – commissioned by homeless charities Thames Reach and St Mungo’s and the Greater London Authority – highlighted the issue of stigma around homelessness and social exclusion stop rough sleepers accessing appropriate healthcare – often leading to early deaths.

Howard Sinclair, CEO at St Mungo’s, said the research represented further evidence of the health inequalities faced by the homeless and of the need for more integrated healthcare for them.

Based on the findings of the Groundswell research and with the input from women with experience of homelessness and people working to support, the report proposes a series of recommendations.

These include:

  • Further research – To better understand the health needs of women experiencing homelessness on a national level
  • Sharing existing knowledge – Research should be shared between funders, academics, NHS staff and representatives from local authorities, government departments and women and homelessness services
  • Increasing knowledge of NHS staff – Further training to develop their understanding of homelessness and housing issues with a focus on gender
  • National standards and accreditation – Services supporting the health of women who are homeless including health providers, housing and homelessness support providers and organisations in the women’s sector should work towards shared standards

These also include flexible and participatory commissioning of services, consistent support and improved joined up working across sectors.