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Nearly-homeless population faces dangerous health conditions: study

Some new tracking of people who are one step away from being homeless reveals a large population rife with mental illness, hunger and chronic health problems.

Research in Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa over a two-year period suggests that for every person sleeping on the street, there are 23 more who are at risk of becoming homeless — living in unaffordable, crowded and unsafe conditions.

That's approximately 400,000 people across Canada — a "hidden emergency" that is being ignored, researchers say.

The Research Alliance for Canadian Homelessness, Housing and Health says that while these so-called "vulnerably housed" people may have roofs over their heads, they are plagued with the same devastating health problems as the homeless.

Half of them have a history of mental illness, and almost two-thirds have had a traumatic brain injury at some point.

Many of them are dealing with harsh physical-health issues too, such as arthritis, Hepatitis B, asthma and high blood pressure.

A third of them say they're having trouble finding enough to eat.

"Before now, researchers and decision-makers have often thought of these groups, the homeless and the vulnerably housed, as two distinct populations, with two different levels of need," said Dr. Stephen Hwang of St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto.

"This study paints a different picture."

The study tracked 1,200 homeless and precariously housed people in the three cities over a two-year period. Researchers plan to track them in the coming years to see how their housing and health status have changed.

So far, they've concluded that the biggest gulf in health outcomes is not between the homeless and the housed. Rather, it's between those who have adequate housing and those who don't.

Their lifespans are about seven to 10 years shorter than the general Canadian population, the study found.

Men in vulnerable housing situations have the same chance of living to the age 75 as an average man in 1921 — before antibiotics were around. They're more than twice as likely as the average Canadian to commit suicide.

Women in similar situations are as likely to survive to the age of 75 as an average woman living in Guatemala. They're six times more likely to commit suicide than the average Canadian.

The solution, the research network argues, is for Ottawa to set standards for access to adequate housing.

"The key point is that Canada needs a national housing strategy," Hwang said.

"We all recognize that health care is important for good health, and so we have universal health care. Decent and affordable housing is just as essential for good health."

The call for a national housing strategy is the third such appeal from a major national group this week alone. Ottawa argues that it has provided plenty of money for housing construction, and is working with the provinces to make sure the money is well spent.

The research network includes St. Michael's Hospital, Carleton University, the University of Ottawa, the University of British Columbia and several community-services organizations and mental-health groups. The study was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

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