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Rough sleepers dying ‘alarmingly’ young

Rough sleepers dying ‘alarmingly’ young

The Record
13/03/2024 12:00 PM

Studies show people experiencing homelessness are dying much younger than the general population.

Research data on the wellbeing of visitors to St Vincent de Paul Society’s Matthew Talbot Hostel in Sydney’s Woolloomooloo shows people seeking homelessness support are dying at the low average age of 55.9 years.

Life expectancy in Australia is 85.3 years for females and 81.2 years for males.

This situation has shown few if any sign of improvement over recent years. A study of the mortality of homeless clinic attendees conducted by medical professionals in Sydney from 2008-2020 found 13.0 per cent of clinic attenders were found to have died at the mean age of 50.7 years.

The authors noted, ‘The study confirms the high mortality of homeless clinic attenders in Sydney found in a study from 30 years earlier.’

The more recent study noted that those dying of an ‘unnatural’ death (drug overdose, suicide and injuries) were much younger than those who died of natural causes: 44.4 years compared to 54.4 years.

Dr Olav Nielssen, one of the authors and a psychiatrist at the Matthew Talbot clinic, said the absence of supported housing was a major factor in poor health.

‘We found quite an alarming mortality and that the mean [age] of death was alarmingly low. The mean age of death … was in the 50s, and for those who had substance abuse issues, it was even younger.’

The client data from Matthew Talbot shows the average age of death to be 52 years and even younger for those suffering from schizophrenia.

The figures are alarming, according to Julie Smith, the hostel’s clinic manager, who has worked in homelessness health since 1990. She told Guardian Australia, which has been focusing on homelessness issues, that in that time she has not seen a significant change in the age of death of those experiencing homelessness.

‘We have been aware that homeless people die 25 to 30 years younger – we’ve known forever that they die prematurely and they die, in many cases, of preventable illness, due to their circumstances,’ Ms Smith said.

‘I remain shocked at the amount of people with serious illness, particularly serious mental illness, who remain on the streets, that it’s so difficult to get housing and healthcare for these people.

‘Sydney is an extremely wealthy, western-style society, and I find it really difficult to grapple with the knowledge that there are so many disadvantaged people living on the streets, living in incredibly substandard housing, and without protection.

‘Their vulnerabilities mean they require protection and they require targeted services and they require specific types of housing and care in many places. It’s shocking – the number of people with schizophrenia that we allow to remain homeless.’

The Primary Health Clinic at the Matthew Talbot Hostel is a nurse-led health service and accredited GP Practice that has operated for about 35 years. It is widely recognised as a key provider of primary health care (including preventative care and chronic disease management) as well as specialist medical and allied health care to homeless men and men at risk of homelessness in the inner city of Sydney.

A leading clinician who has worked extensively with people experiencing homelessness said he often regards this group of people as ‘prematurely aged or prematurely ageing.’

Tragically, too many of them are also prematurely deceased.

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