Addressing Homelessness and Mental Health Reduces Crime

Mental health issues are extremely present in criminal populations. Rather than being rehabilitated or treated, many offenders return to society with no home, no employment, and few, if any, mental healthcare resources. This often results in repeat offenses and subsequent prison or jail sentences. Because many people with mental health issues commit minor offenses, their duration of incarceration is relatively brief, lasting only several months or a few years.

Although this is not a long period of time, it is long enough to affect social networks, housing, and employment. When these individuals are released, they have a disruption of services and social relationships, leaving them to begin anew in nearly every domain of life. Further, when individuals have nowhere to live, they often find themselves in homeless communities with other offenders and other individuals with mental health issues. This environment is ripe for breeding future offenses and crime.

To combat this issue, the Housing First (HF) initiative was created. The goal of the program was to increase accessibility to housing for individuals with mental illness. But until recently, few studies have examined the long-term effects of HF on a criminal sample. To address his, Julian M. Somers of the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University in Canada led a study assessing the rate of recidivism on a sample of homeless individuals with mental illness. The participants were assigned to HF in either a scattered site (SS) or a congregate (CONG) condition, or treatment as usual (TAU). They were evaluated over a two-year period.

Somers found that the majority of the participants had prior convictions but recidivism dropped after they were enrolled HF. In fact, compared to the TAU participants, those in HF had only one third the number of re-offenses. These findings were similar across various psychological issues, including substance abuse, which has been theorized to be directly linked to criminal activity. In this study, however, substance abuse did not predict criminal offenses for those in the HF condition.

Another interesting finding was the difference in recidivism between the CONG and SS HF conditions. The participants who were placed in established neighborhoods with varying ethnic and economic statuses had lower rates of offending than those in the CONG condition. Somers believes that perhaps being randomly injected into well-established, low crime, family  neighborhoods provides less opportunity or desire to offend than being housed with other offenders.

Those in the CONG condition were aware of each other’s mental states and prior criminal records, factors that could have increased the likelihood to offend. Regardless, even those in CONG committed fewer crimes than the participants in the TAU condition, demonstrating the positive impact housing can have. Somers added, “Our findings underscore the consequences of failing to provide adequate housing and supports to homeless people with mental disorders.”

Somers, J.M., Rezansoff, S.N., Moniruzzaman, A., Palepu, A., Patterson, M. (2013). Housing first reduces re-offending among formerly homeless adults with mental disorders: Results of a randomized controlled trial. PLoS ONE 8(9): e72946. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0072946

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  • Jara


    September 17th, 2013 at 3:38 AM

    This sort of seems to be the problem that no one wants to take a close look at and see. We think that if we close our eyes and don’t look it will go away but if you drive through any town of any size it is not hard to seethe effects. There are far too many people on the streets and when you take the time to sit andtalk to them you will find that a good number of them are prior offenders who either have been given no resources for finding housing after release or addiitionally they have a ental illness that has never been appropriately addressed or treated. It is a very sad situation that in a country of so much there are still so many who don’t have access to that bounty.

  • franklin


    September 17th, 2013 at 10:51 AM

    I think that one of the keys to success after release is to give these people opportunities for success. Before, they have just been given their walking papers, but with what real hope for later success? they have a record, they have no job, and for many of them they are overly burdened with a drug or alcohol addiction that is only going to continue to worse. Why not provide them with the chance to heal and succeed in stead of throwing them into the frying pan all over again?

  • Georgia D

    Georgia D

    September 18th, 2013 at 3:58 AM

    This is such an interwoven web of issues that there are sadly no easy answers to these problems. For many of these offenders, this is something that is pervasive in their family histories and it is honestly the only life that they have ever known. It is hard for them to know where to go to seek help, how to break free from a life of crime, or even how to earn an honest living so that they don’t have to live a life of being homeless. Once you get caught up in this cycle, if it is the first generation or many generations down the road, it is terribly difficult to escape from. Those of us who have never expereinced this can sit back and think that we have the answers but I think that until you are in it you don’t really have any idea how hard it can be to extricate yourself fully from this sort of life.

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