SR editorial: Traumatic brain injuries and homelessness

When Street Roots vendor George Dennison learned that we were running a story on traumatic brain injuries and homelessness, he responded, “Oh, thank God. Because it’s totally rampant out there!”  In preparing this story, we spoke to five individuals who had all suffered their own versions of brain injury, from auto accidents to sports injuries to domestic violence.  We also heard stories of homeless individuals being kicked in the head while they were sleeping and otherwise attacked for being homeless.  After hearing all the stories, we have to agree with George.

It’s rampant out there.

It’s all together possible that TBI may disproportionally affect people experiencing homelessness. It may also mean that as a public health system we are misdiagnosing people for the wrong ailments. That’s a deadly serious charge.

Studies in Toronto, Ontario, Milwaukie, Wisconsin and Boston, Massachusetts have shown that a disproportionate amount of people on the streets experience brain injuries. What does that mean? We don’t know, and that’s the problem.

The National Football League and the United States military are asking themselves the same questions.  In increasing numbers, professional football players and combat veterans are coming forward with a range of symptoms associated with brain injuries — including suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and addiction. With these institutions still searching for answers, it is natural to believe, given the data, that we don’t have a clue how brain injuries relate to homelessness, and how that translates to both preventive care and post-injury recovery.

The burden on the street is landing on a small number of already overwhelmed agencies. From a research, health care and human perspective, we are possibly missing out on a key component of homelessness itself, much less how it relates to a more accurate diagnoses of people’s health.

This and future editions of SR will be looking at several aspects of brain injury and homelessness in Portland and around the country. We hope to be able to look at what we already know, how systems are communicating with one another, and a possible roadmap to understanding the problem.

Through a series of news reports on death and people experiencing homelessness SR came to the conclusion that our systems hadn’t a clue on how many people on the streets were dying, or why. We pushed.

In 2012, the Multnomah County Health Department, in partnership with the City of Portland and the Medical Examiners Office, and supported by SR, will be releasing a report on those numbers. We’re hoping the research reveals trends that will better help our systems at both a regional and national level deal with the issue of  mortality and homelessness.

There’s no reason to believe that research and reporting on brain injuries, or any number of issues related to health care, couldn’t do the same. We spend so much money asking non-profits and government locally to respond to the crisis of homelessness, when by understanding the issue we may be able to curb or altogether major trends that lead to homelessness, and improve the lives of countless of individuals and families.

Homelessness, including mental health, is too often narrowly addressed through the lens of public safety and law enforcement. It’s only half of the game. Without understanding the public health aspects of homelessness, and doing something about it, we all lose.

Readers note: Street Roots is writing an on-going series this summer on Traumatic Brain Injury and homelessness. To read the first installment go here. Pick up the June 10, edition for the next in-depth article, and editorial on the topic.

One response to “SR editorial: Traumatic brain injuries and homelessness

  1. Pingback: All in their head: Traumatic brain injuries often go undiagnosed, especially on the streets | For those who can’t afford free speech

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