Tom K on ‘Room to Breathe’ – homelessness and respiratory health

‘Homeless people are dramatically more likely to be diagnosed with a breathing problem than the wider population.’

First published October 2016 by Tom K.

Breathing problems are very common for  people affected by homelessness. I’ve recently volunteered on a research project called ‘Room to Breathe’ which explored the extent of lung disease among people who are currently homeless.

For most rough sleepers, being invited to take part in a survey is about as exciting as an hourly headache. But the research I worked on took a different approach than usual. Volunteers who have experience of being homeless set the topics we would explore, questions asked and carried out the surveys. Volunteers like me. And of course there was the incentive of a £5 note. That always helps.

The research was conducted in temporary accommodation and at day centres, which homeless people can attend as a respite from the daily grind of living on the street. I found it fascinating to undertake.

I found out about the hidden habits that can affect our breathing, such as sleeping around pigeon roosts or mould, smoking, and passing cigarettes around large groups which increases the possibility of cross-infection.

Right from the start, a disturbing pattern was emerging. There was a sense of hopelessness that people felt about their health. Having to survive the day-to-day hardships of homelessness meant that health wasn’t high on people’s list of priorities.

That doesn’t mean a lack of interest, but instead struggling to survive and a sheer lack of knowledge about the dangers that being homeless can have for our lungs.And even when they know there’s a problem, most people said it was difficult to get to a doctor.

We found that homeless people are dramatically more likely to be diagnosed with a breathing problem than the wider population – and it’s likely that many people have undiagnosed problems. Around 5% of homeless people have a diagnosis of COPD, compared to less than 2% of the general UK population. They’re twice as likely to have asthma, and 5 times as likely to smoke. And we found that the longer someone had been homeless, the more likely they were to have breathing problems.

By the end of the research, I realised that it was no longer about the £5 note. The people I spoke to were genuinely interested in the issues, and wanted more information about the risks.

It’s unnecessary and avoidable. I hope the research can make a positive difference.

Front cover of the room to breathe action guide