Is Homelessness a Result of, or Cause of, Cognitive Impairment?

Homelessness presents a significant social and economic problem for communities. Homeless individuals rely on government programs, charities, and outreach facilities to maintain any semblance of existence. Levels of homelessness can be partially attributed to lack of available resources for those seeking services, such as affordable housing, shelters, and back-to-work programs but can also be influenced by the mental and cognitive condition of the individual. It is well established that the majority of homeless individuals have struggled with some form of trauma in their lives.

Additionally, nearly all homeless individuals, according to past research, report not having a father figure in their home while they were growing up. And illiteracy has been cited as another common thread among the homeless. All of these factors may influence the level of cognitive functioning and mental health of an individual. And some of these conditions, such as illiteracy, could be the result of mental impairment. But does homelessness itself, a state that often coincides with drug and alcohol misuse, improper nutrition, and violence, contribute to cognitive decline? To answer this question, Graham Pluck, of the Academic Clinical Psychiatry at the University of Sheffield in the UK, assessed the memory and intelligence of 80 homeless people using a battery of clinical and cognitive measures.

He found that of the participants, nearly 20% had extremely low memory and IQ scores, relative to an expected 2% in the general population. He then looked at how long the participants were homeless and found no change in scores relative to time of homelessness. Hughes also discovered that nearly half of the homeless participants had daily drug or alcohol use, three quarters had psychiatric issues, and a quarter had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Although he found no evidence to suggest that homelessness itself increases cognitive impairment, Hughes believes that the factors commonly found in the homeless, such as drug use, violence, malnutrition, and negative affect, sustain cognitive impairment and perpetuate the condition of homelessness. Hughes added, “Potential interventions considering cognitive function could be applied at the local level, to improve the lives of homeless individuals, or increase the chances of successful rehousing.”

Pluck, G., Lee, K.-H., David, R., Spence, S. A., Parks, R. W. Neuropsychological and Cognitive Performance of Homeless Adults. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science 44.1 (2012): 913-15. Print.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Jay


    February 24th, 2012 at 7:35 PM

    I’ve been homeless before and was NOT due to ANY of the above! I grew up in an affluent family with TWO parents, lots of siblings. Many, many who have become homeless are normal people who have fallen on hard times or maybe simply immature or have lost their jobs who don’t or can’t pay their rent and get evicted. The psychological stereotypes really tick me off.

  • Ray


    September 19th, 2014 at 7:04 AM

    I believe this article is referencing a majority. Of course there are people who have fell on hard times. I have been working with the homeless professionally since 2008. There is a huge difference between acute homelessness (people who have fell on tough times) and individuals who are habitually homeless.

  • xavier


    February 25th, 2012 at 6:12 AM

    I agree with Jay. There is no overwhelming evidence that all homeless people have had something bad happen to them in life, other than the fact that they have faced some hard luck and they have lost their home or have not been able to secure a permanent home for themselves or their family. I find this issue to be so sad yet there are times when it feels like no one even wants to acknowledge that it is a problem.

  • Donald H

    Donald H

    February 26th, 2012 at 4:29 AM

    I have always thought that being homeless was simply a result of mismanagement of your money or perhaps poor decision making skills in other areas of your life.

    I have never given any thought that the problems could go deeper than that, that there could be some mental health instability involved in these situations as well.

    Thank you for opening my eyes to something new, something to ponder and study, and something to maybe pursue in terms of treatment for the homeless community as we look to affect some positive change in their lives.

  • Research Trauma

    Research Trauma

    February 26th, 2012 at 11:44 AM

    For a wider perspecive and studys of this nature, especially regarding the homeless population and experience: Google: Trauma Informed Care .

  • lea


    February 27th, 2012 at 5:16 AM

    but trauma in life does not necessarily mean mental illness?
    And that is the stigma that follows so much of the homeless population, that they are crazy or something.
    That’s why I think so many people take a hands off approach to the homeless because they are afraid that when they are trying to help them that they are getting in over their head.



    February 28th, 2012 at 9:09 AM

    A string of negatives results in homelessness and the same negatives increase afterwards…That is how it usually works if I’m nt wrong.

    Whether it is the reason or the result,homeless people face tough times every single day and every single minute and that is what should be discussed and worked upon.

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