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How can homelessness be harmful to health?

The average life expectancy of someone experiencing chronic homelessness is 55 years. That’s over 20 years younger than the average New Zealander.

Every year across the world, World Homeless Day aims to shine a light on this global symptom of inequality.

This year on Thursday 10 October, Aucklanders are invited to join in a range of activities at Freyberg Square in support of people experiencing homelessness.

“Homelessness creates challenges for a healthy lifestyle and prevents people doing the things doctors advise them to. People suffer poor sleep, and inadequate diet, difficulty with personal hygiene, and difficulty following most treatment regimes. Medications often get lost, stolen or damaged. Plaster casts get wet and soggy, dressings get dirty,” says Dr Richard Davies at Auckland City Mission’s Calder Medical Centre.

Daily aspects of life that most of us take for granted, like toothbrushes and toothpaste, body wash, or sanitary products can be difficult or impossible to access. People experiencing long-term, chronic homelessness can also develop chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease or gout, which are hard to manage when you are sleeping on the street. “Many of them have suffered one or more head injuries during their lives,” says Dr Davies, “and this may affect their ability to understand and process information, and may cause difficulty in regulating emotions.”

Lisa Roberts, Housing First Auckland City Centre Programme Leader, observes, “Our health systems are designed for people who can come to an appointment on a certain day at a certain time, not for people who are in survival mode, for whom health care can feel like an impossible luxury.” Even enrolling with a doctor is impossible when someone has no fixed abode.

When someone gets housed it may be a good opportunity to enrol with a GP and address their health issues. Figures from the Calder Medical Centre show that about 1 in 4 of their patients are vulnerably housed and about 1 in 10 are sleeping rough. The recent Auckland Homeless Count found that 54% of people experiencing homelessness had visited a hospital emergency department in a year, 41% had to be admitted to hospital, and 18% visit more than10 times.

The occasion of World Homeless Day is an opportunity to challenge the status quo, erase the stigma of homelessness, and acknowledge that the solution to ending homelessness is to collaborate as a community.

Freyberg Square will become a hub of activity for all Aucklanders on Thursday 10 October. There will be entertainment including sets from local legends Ardijah, food, exercise tips and opportunities to check out service provider information and learn more about the effects of homelessness on health.

This World Homeless Day event is led by the Auckland Rough Sleepers Initiative, supported by Ellen Melville Center, Auckland Council and Waitemata local board together with organisations such as James Liston Hostel Trust, Te Puni Kōkiri - Tamaki Makaurau, Auckland City Mission, Lifewise, New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, RainbowYOUTH, and Waitematā DHB Mental Health Services.

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