Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Homeless life span short, sickly

A study conducted by researchers in Seattle offers some new insight into who the homeless are and what ails them. I realize we think we are already know who the homeless are. The panhandler in front of Safeway or Trader Joe's who will curse you out if you don't hand over some money. The 'rider' who can clear the gathering at a bus stop just by showing up sans bath and deodorant. The stereotypical drunken Indian you step over or walk around to get where you're going. Some of us have factual information about the homeless. We know there is a correlation between being homeless and a former ward of the foster care system, or a military veteran, or low level employee, such as a security guard. The researchers delved deeper by looking into one of the most telling aspects of a person's life: what he or she dies from.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has the story.

SEATTLE, Wash. -- The average homeless person in King County died prematurely at age 47, and most likely suffered from alcohol or substance abuse, a new study found.

Some homeless people had as many as eight health problems but the average was three, said the study released Monday by Public Health-Seattle & King County, which reviewed 77 deaths that occurred last year.

Roughly two-thirds of the dead had a history of alcohol or substance abuse, more than half suffered from cardiovascular disease and a quarter had a mental-health problem, the study said.

The most common cause of death was acute intoxication, followed by cardiovascular disease and homicide. More than half of the deaths occurred outside, the study said.

It is estimated that about 8,000 people are homeless each night in King County.

Having spent more time than I should have at a blog dominated by Right Wingers this year, I been told over and over again that poverty either does not exist in the United States, or, that those mired in hopelessness deserve to be. The results from the King County study reveal the interplay that makes escape from the worst kind of poverty impossible for many of those caught in the cycle. To acquire a job, housing and consistent health care, a person needs to be at least moderately functional. Many homeless people aren't because of their ill health. Their addictions make a difficult situation a futile one.

Dr. Alonzo Plough, director and health officer for public-health agency, said the study reveals the complex health challenges faced by homeless people as they struggle to survive.

"It reflects the harshness of life on the streets and in shelters, inadequate access to health care, enormous human suffering and loss," Plough said in a statement.

Though the study is not large, and is localized to the most populous county in Washington state, its findings are similar to those elsewhere in the U.S. The lives of the street dwellers seem to have changed little despite our progress as a technological society. Seattle in 2004 could be Charles Dickens' London of 1804. Life on the margins is still short, sickly and brutish.

Note: This entry also appeared at Mac-a-ro-nies.

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