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Autism and homelessness

Liza Dresner, Director at Resources for Autism, discusses the links between autism and homelessness. Resources for Autism offers a range of services to autistic children and adults in the Greater London and West Midlands areas, as well as training courses for professionals.

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Author: Liza Dresner

Homelessness and autism

I first began to think about the link between autism and homelessness after I was contacted by someone working in a London borough who had become concerned about an older adult street sleeper who he felt would not survive another winter on the streets. No one had been able to make headway with this individual, and having come across someone in his personal life who was diagnosed with autism, the worker began to make some connections.

As the homelessness worker and I talked I had one of those rare lightbulb moments. It is so obvious. The main causes of homelessness are family breakdown, unemployment and poverty and an inability to understand the complexities of the benefits system. Sound familiar?

The street is undemanding, and when there:

  • you are in control of your environment choosing where and when you sleep
  • you are in control of who you do or do not communicate with
  • you create your own rules (mostly) and the dangers that many of us might anticipate are irrelevant until they have actually happened to you.

The drift to the street should be preventable but it is only preventable if professionals pick up on the signs, and if the resources are there to offer proper alternatives.

Without exception the workers that I have met over the past couple of years have been caring and wonderful people who are expected to understand a wide range of issues, from mental health to alcohol abuse and from acquired brain injury to domestic violence and sexual assault. Autism may not have featured in any training or thinking. But what if it is on the agenda? Staff are eager to learn but when they do it is not easy to put best practice into the long journey from street to indoors.

Issues to consider

I have now trained a number of homelessness workers and we have looked at many issues such as:

  • alternative communication
  • visuals and process time
  • reduced choices and clear rules

Improving workers awareness of autism has been incredibly effective, but unless there is appropriate accommodation available at the very moment someone says yes, then all is lost.

By appropriate I mean hostels with trained and understanding staff, and meaningful rules. They need to be aware that ritual and routine may be essential in helping someone feel safe, and that once there someone may not see the point in moving on again.

A new tenant may be living in your unit but have no interest in having you as a ‘friend’. Hostels may be far too hot for someone who has lived outside for a long time. Sensory issues must be understood, acknowledged and accommodated and once again, visuals used to help reinforce any rules and future plans. Of course in an ideal world we would be moving someone into a nice flat with trained support and with low arousal surroundings but sadly that is not the real world.

We must ask ourselves, why would someone who has found a home that suits them in a dark doorway where no one bothers them and they feel in control, choose to move to somewhere where forms must be completed, questions answered many times, rooms shared with strangers and rent paid?

A homelessness organisation has a staff notice which talks of ‘helping people take control of their lives’. I have challenged this as, if we are honest, what we are trying to do is take that control away and provide a safer, better alternative to a lifestyle that may appear to the autistic individual ‘autism friendly’. Controversial in this time of personalisation but controversial or not, it works.

Further information

Resources for Autism

Date added: 4 July 2016

Comments

Dr Mitzi Waltz

Fri, 22/07/2016 - 07:32

Unfortunately many of the hostels to which people are sent are privately owned and very dangerous. As the author knows the West Midlands, she may recognise this description (I won't name the owner) of a hostel where one homeless adult with autism that I know spent most of a year. It's a rabbit warren of rooms above a shop in Moseley, and when he was there food was only available during announced inspections. The other tenants included drug dealers and fraudsters who used it as their base of operations, prostitutes (ditto,) and several violent drinkers. Although it is nominally owned and run by someone else, the real owner is someone who, due to his involvement in an arson fire in a hostel he owned some years previously that resulted in loss of life, is supposedly banned from involvement in owning or running hostels. In reality he does as he pleases. The missing breakfast issue is a common one - it was the case in another hostel in London that the same autistic person lived in for a few months previously, and I heard the same from two other (non-autistic but disabled) people I know who lived in hostel accommodation in London, in their case a hostel run by one of the better known homelessness charities. They also told me about rampant drug use and violence. My autistic friend said that in many ways he felt safer squatting (sleeping on the streets proved too dangerous) which is of course now illegal. I'm glad to hear that outeach workers are receiving training but in these times of 'we don't care' council's the system has become even more frightening and hard to access!

Sat, 02/12/2017 - 19:19

I'm ex-homeless and autistic.

Homeless organisations trying to get autistic homeless people into hostels are clearly not informing them about their rights to be rehoused by the council.

 

Homeless autistic people are in priority need under the Housing Act and therefore entiltled to get rehoused by the council.

 

Homeless organisations are not telling homeless people about their right to council housing.

 

Why? Because getting homeless people into hostels keeps homeless people homeless and without homeless people who is going to pay their wages!

 

When I was homeless I was in a total of about 40 hostels, night shelters and cold weather shelters and not a single one told me about my right to get rehoused by the council.

 

Being homeless was extremely traumatic, more so because I am autistic - the constant changes, the urcentainity of how long I was going to be there and where I was going next, having no control over anything, being in unfamiliar places, sensory overload from too many people, too much noise, fluorescent lights and clashing colours.

 

All that could have been avoided if homeless organisations actually put the needs of homeless people first rather their own to keep homeless people homeless for the sake of them continuing to have a job.

 

I had to find out myself I was entitled to get rehoused by the council. I was in a night shelter that made us leave between 8am and 8pm and I would go to the library. Whilst there I picked up a book about housing legislation and found out that as a victim of domestic violence I was entitled to get rehoused by the council. I didn't know I was autistic back them. It took more than 15 years for me to find out I'm autistic. Doctors and psychiatrists are clueless about autism, particularly in women.