More than half of people who are homeless have a lifetime history of traumatic brain injury (TBI), according to a University of British Columbia (UBC)-led study released last month.
Those rates aren’t exactly surprising to Grant McKenzie, director of communications at Victoria’s Our Place Society.
The non-profit, located in the busy 900-block of Pandora Avenue, has been helping to feed, house and support thousands of people experiencing homelessness or addiction in the inner city since 2007.
“Trauma is one of the number one reasons people end up on the street,” McKenzie says. “It kind of shows you that with something as serious as traumatic brain injury, how difficult it is for people to pick themselves up without the assistance of not-for-profits.”
By analyzing data in 38 studies on TBI between 1995 and 2018 in Australia, Canada, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the U.S., UBC researchers learned that people who are homeless or marginally housed are two to five times more likely to have a brain injury than estimates in the general population. In total, 53 per cent of the homeless population studied had experienced a brain injury and 25 per cent experienced a “moderate or severe” TBI.
Researchers couldn’t say if TBIs increased the risk of homelessness or vice versa, but they did suggest that physicians and care providers who work with people who are homeless should have an increased awareness of brain injuries and their impacts.
The study also shows that serious brain injuries, which occur roughly 165,000 times per year in Canada, can have devastating long-term impacts. Researchers reported connections between TBI and increased risk of suicide, poorer self-reported physical and mental health, memory issues and increased health service and criminal justice system involvement.
“I think a lot of times it’s quite easy to point a finger at somebody and say, ‘hey get a job’ or ‘stop using drugs’ and that’s not always the case,” McKenzie says. “I think when the general public realizes there is so much injury of people on the streets, there’s so much trauma, they’ll realize what we see as drug addiction is a side effect of that trauma.”
TBIs might contribute to homelessness, McKenzie says, but so do the long-term injuries caused by trauma and abuse – both physical and mental.
“Everybody that comes to use Our Place, they come from a place of abuse and neglect,” he says. “And you definitely see the impacts of that injury. That could be everything from prenatal trauma to early sexual or physical abuse – and that sends their life off on a path of falling through the cracks.”