Creating networks to provide social support for the homeless may improve health outcomes
Research Activities, March 2010, No. 355
Informal networks of social support serve as an important resource for homeless adults that may lead to improved health, according to a new study. The researchers studied 544 homeless adults from 50 shelters and 18 meal programs in Toronto, Canada. These adults perceived that they had moderately high access to financial, emotional, and instrumental social supports (such as a ride). These perceived social supports were related to better physical and mental health status and a lower likelihood of victimization.
The vast majority (89 percent) of men and women were living in shelters, with the remaining 11 percent living in a public place, vehicle, abandoned building, or in someone else's place. The study participants answered questions on social support, filled out a standardized questionnaire on health status, and answered a question on whether they had been "physically assaulted or beat up in the past 12 months."
Two-thirds (67 percent) of this homeless group suffered from one or more chronic health conditions, and their scores on the health status questionnaire indicated poorer physical and mental health than the general population. Nearly 30 percent of the sample had been physically assaulted in the past 12 months. Through their social network, 62 percent of the group perceived access to financial support in the form of a short-term loan, 51 percent perceived access to instrumental support in the form of a ride, and 60 percent perceived access to emotional support during crises. Perceived financial support was related to better physical health status, perceived emotional support was related to better mental health status, and perceived instrumental support was associated with lower likelihood of victimization. The study was funded in part by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (HS14129).
More details are in "Multidimensional social support and the health of homeless individuals," by Stephen H. Hwang, M.D., M.P.H., Maritt J. Kirst, Ph.D., Shirley Chiu, M.A., and others, in the September 2009 Journal of Urban Health: Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine 86(5), pp. 791-803.