Myths about chronically homeless people not wanting to leave the streets persists for a number of reasons. Pathways into longer term housing or other supported accommodation are often made via a crisis or transitional accommodation arrangement and some homeless people choose not to access crisis or transitional accommodation arrangements for a range of reasons (which might include; not wanting to separate from their pet or not wanting to live in a congregate care environment). Some homeless people may not be able to access crisis or transitional accommodation arrangements for a range of reasons (which might include; not meeting assessment criteria, behavioural problems or no vacancies) .
There are a few chronically homeless people who may genuinely prefer a transient street life or who have adapted, over time, to a life on the streets. There is certainly good evidence to suggest that the longer someone remains street homeless, the more entrenched they will become and the greater likelihood they will remain homeless. Most outreach workers as well as supportive housing providers are familiar with people who have developed street skills and connections and find it difficult to leave a way of life to which they have adapted over many years.
The other commonly believed myth about chronically homeless people is that they are all mentally ill and are on the streets as a result of a ‘misguided government policy that closed all the mental institutions in the 1970s and 1980s’.
The large mental institutions were not closed overnight and as the result of government edict (although it was governments who did ultimately close them). Psychiatric practice and treatment had already changed by the 70s and 80s. People were already being discharged from institutions or not being kept in hospitals for long periods. This was primarily the result of the development of effective medications for the treatment of psychotic and depressive illnesses (which occurred from the late 1950s). Even if the large institutions had kept their doors open, they would likely be almost empty today. A few people may still require longer term 24 hour care in hospitals (often because medications may not work for them), but not very many. The great majority of people with a mental illness are, with the right treatment and support, able to live in the community.
Whilst a high number of chronically homeless people may have a diagnosed mental illness (as well as other conditions) this does not mean that a large institution is the answer to their homelessness. Adequate housing and appropriate support is the answer.