McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

Head injuries more common among the homeless

Published: December 12, 2006
Terry Petrenchik
Theresa Petrenchik has conducted research that shows head injuries are much more common among the homeless.

By Suzanne Morrison

A McMaster University researcher says mounting evidence suggests significant numbers of homeless people are suffering from head injuries which seriously affect their ability to cope with difficult personal circumstances.

The rate of head injury among the homeless may be as high as 24 percent, compared to one per cent in the general population, says Theresa Petrenchik, assistant professor in the School of Rehabilitation Science.

Compared to homeless adults without a head injury, she said those with head injuries have been found to be homeless longer and more often, experience higher rates of mental health and substance abuse problems, hospitalizations, emergency room admissions, chronic unemployment and arrests.

Petrenchik said self-reported head injury is significantly more likely among males who are chronically homeless, living on the street, using multiple types of health care services such as hospitalizations and ambulatory care, and have a permanent disability, substance abuse problem or mental health problem.

Petrenchik is an occupational therapist with a background in community practice and research with people in vulnerable circumstances, particularly children and families who are poor and homeless. Her research linking the homeless with head injuries was undertaken in Broward County, Florida while working on her doctorate and delivering services – such as developmental screenings to mothers and children – at a local homeless shelter. The estimate of 24 per cent is supported by two separate studies conducted by researchers in the northern United States.

She appreciates some critics may quarrel that 24 per cent is too high an estimate but suggests if the statistics are only half that, they’re too high. "All I am saying is there is a phenomenon here that we need to investigate," she said.

In many cases, the head injury happened before the person became homeless. For women, domestic violence frequently caused the injury.

According to Statistics Canada, 14,145 Canadians, including 6,100 in Ontario, were using a shelter on a single census day in May, 2000. This is considered a gross underestimation of the size of the homeless population because it does not include those living on the streets, halfway homes, hotels/motels, and individuals who are doubled up or ‘couch surfers’.

Unlike the United States, few Canadian health researchers are involved in the study of homelessness and its consequences.

Petrenchik has written a chapter in a new book on homelessness to be released in January. Entitled Homelessness in America: Perspectives, Characterizations and Considerations for Occupational Therapy, it is the first time the research and writings of occupational therapists, who work closely with the homeless, have been compiled in one book. A second book chapter is scheduled for publication late in 2007.

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