Freezing temperatures, sleeping on an empty stomach, and working to navigate a stable enough space to store belongings are just a few of many pressing issues faced by homeless populations. With the recent upheaval of homeless encampments throughout the nation’s capital, the mental health of displaced individuals stands in great vulnerability as they scramble for resources to stabilize themselves.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, individuals experiencing homelessness are exposed to significantly increased risk for infectious and non-infectious diseases including; viral hepatitis (most likely hepatitis C), tuberculosis (TB), and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), while many are simultaneously facing mental illness, alcohol and substance use disorder, heart and lung disease, and diabetes.  Health threats reach beyond physical ailments, as the crisis of homelessness additionally plagues one’s emotional stability.

“People experiencing homelessness are at risk of developing mental illnesses, such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” according to the CDC. 

When digging into the behavioral patterns of displaced residents across the region, mental illness plays a significant factor in the apparent discourse that constantly concerns city officials, while the emotional and physical distress of homelessness similarly ignites risks concerning drug abuse, and at times, violent outbreaks – a cocktail that the District has deemed too dangerous of a scenario to exist in some of the city’s most populous neighborhoods. 

The Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Wayne Turnage publicly spoke to the rising concern of increasing incidences of violence and drug use throughout the McPherson Square encampment, which became the said explanation for its displacement. 

“When we read about the incident of a woman being doused in urine, over her head, [and] put the knowledge of the fact that three people died from either combination of exposure or drug overdoses, we knew it was getting out of hand and we had to do something,” Turnage stated. 

But despite the number of reported complaints against the homeless residents, the numbers do not outweigh the rates of violence and drug abuse within communities of housed residents across the city.  Likewise, unlike their respective counterparts, homeless individuals have significant barriers to access healthcare services, with frequent lapses in medical attention often leading to worsening health outcomes and increasing morbidity rates.

The trauma of displacement is undeniably damaging to the psyche, coupled with an increasing absence of available shelter beds across the city, which continues to leave many homeless residents grappling with the arduous task of managing where their next safe space or even meal will come from.  During the latest D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) meeting at the beginning of February, local advocates and officials working with homelessness issues in D.C. shared the growing concern of city shelters reaching capacity.

“I think we’re fine right now – but, with PEP-V and the other shelters they said they are closing at that meeting, that’s problematic,” Kate Coventry, deputy director of legislative strategy at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, recently told Street Sense Media.

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