December 20, 2011; Source: The GuardianIf you’ve ever wondered why nonprofits are so assiduous and dedicated to their social safety network, you have only to talk with Alex Bax, chief executive of London Pathway, and Kay Boycott, policy director of Shelter, both charities serving the homeless in the United Kingdom. For people who work with the homeless, maybe the motivation is related to the findings of the British charity Crisis, which has just released a report on the life expectancies of the homeless.

In Homelessness: A Silent Killer, Crisis reports that the average life expectancy of homeless men and women in the United Kingdom is 47 and 43, respectively—compared to 77 for the general population. The head of Crisis, Leslie Morphy, commented, “Life on the streets is harsh and the stress of being homeless is clearly taking its toll. This report […] shows that homelessness is killing people.”

There are several reasons for the fact that the homeless die 30 years younger than their counterparts in regular society. Factors include a rate of suicide among the homeless that is nine times higher and a likelihood of dying in traffic accidents that is three times higher. In addition, higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse are responsible for one-third of homeless deaths, and, as the BBC report on this study noted, while drug and alcohol abuse can often be a cause of homelessness, “being without a home exacerbates the problem”. Although Boycott referenced the problems of the nation’s nearly 70,000 homeless children, Morphy mentioned the particular problems of homeless adults. The U.K.’s housing minister, Housing Minister Grant Shapps, announced that the government was allocating an extra £20m in funding for homelessness programs targeting individual homeless adults, who, the minister said, “all too often slip through the safety net.”

We suspect that something similar is happening here in the United States, with homeless mortality—and that the policy focus is perhaps a little more attentive to homeless families than to homeless individuals. Perhaps it is the passion for serving one’s fellow men and women that drives some people to work for nonprofits serving the homeless, but we suspect for others in both the United Kingdom and the United States, it is the unfathomable situation of hundreds of thousands of homeless people dying thirty years before their time due to the cumulative impacts of being homeless in some of the wealthiest nations on this planet.—Rick Cohen