Homelessness in Medellin: towards a public policy for the integral treatment of homeless people with severe mental illness and substance abuse disorders

Professor Peter H. Rossi describes homelessness as not having customary and regular access to a conventional dwelling. In Colombia, this subject is regulated by the Law 1641 (2013) which defines homeless as a person that regardless of sex, race or age, makes the street his/her dwelling place, either permanently or temporarily and has broken ties with his/her family. In the same context, the relational synergies between homeless people and the general public refers to the term habitability in the street.

Although the subject has been studied worldwide, there is lack of academic research within the Latin-American region, with few good practices recognized (e.g. the case of Chile described by Cohen and Gómez, 2005). However, most findings such as those by Minnery and Greenhalgh (2007), suggest that three main pathways into homelessness have been identified: a) as the result of a housing crisis; b) as the result of a family or relationship breakdown (particularly involving domestic violence); and c) as a transition from youth to adult homelessness.

According to the Municipality and the University of Antioquia, there were 4,299 homeless people in 2009 in Medellin, out of which 918 were institutionalized and 3,381 were in the streets. This population was confronted with lack of available places for their attention and treatment, an integral system for preventing and attending this phenomenon, and a solid legal base to treat them since it was all founded on goodwill. Furthermore, as suggested by Professor Marta Correa in her characterization of homeless people in the Western part of Medellin (2007) “there (were) no adequate resources to output both uprooting and to address such complexity of simultaneous problems”.

This situation exacerbated in 2013 when the National Government instructed local administrations and the Police to demolish all “dens of vice”, consisting in privately owned houses used for the permanent selling and consumption of illegal substances. A total of 73 were destroyed in Medellin, leaving 606 drug-addicted street-dwellers, with high probability of mental disorders, first wandering throughout the city and then locating along the river borders and downtown. This caused astonishment and stir among citizens who asked for immediate solutions, however, and knowing that the problem could not be addressed through single-focus initiatives; the Municipality built an approach in which rehabilitation, re-socialization, and social inclusion could be accomplished.

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