What’s There To Do on the Streets All Day Long?

Boredom is a pervasive and highly damaging element of homelessness. Providing vulnerable people with structure offers hope.


Tonight, an estimated 35,000 Canadians will be homeless, sleeping on the street or in shelters. Meanwhile, thousands more will call on friends or relatives for a place to lay their head.

For many people living on the streets, mental health and substance use are daily challenges. But it’s inaccurate to presume that these are simply causes of homelessness. They are also the result, in part due to a widespread but often overlooked issue: boredom.

It sounds trivial, but boredom can be hugely damaging. Among the general population boredom is linked to everything from poor health, to unsafe driving and criminal activity. Among the homeless population, we know relatively little. Now, a team of researchers led from Western University is working to find out more.

To learn more about the nature and impact of boredom, the team interviewed 13 homeless adults in Toronto and Kingston, Ontario. All but two described boredom as “a central feature of their homelessness”.

This is not the boredom you feel at the end of a long day at work, but a pervasive and enduring lack of meaningful activity. In fact, over half the participants reported five or less “productive” hours per week — hours engaged in activities such as working, volunteering, studying, or being a parent or carer.

This was particularly the case for those using shelters. “We sit and we stare,” one participant explains. “It feels a lot like you’re waiting at a bus station. Only you don’t have a bus that you’re on.”

For many, the lack of structure, money and opportunity creates a sense of helplessness and hopelessness that can be difficult to escape. Over time, this can have serious implications for mental and social well-being.

“The pervasive boredom experienced by our participants significantly impacted their mental, physical, and social well-being”, explains the research team led by Carrie Anne Marshall, assistant professor in Western University’s School of Occupational Therapy. This profound boredom also drives substance use, with 11 of the 13 participants using substances as a coping mechanism.

Although larger scale research is needed, this hints at the potential for using meaningful activity — whether that is employment, arts or occupational therapy — to combat the despair and disconnection experienced by those who find themselves homelessness. Some fear this might make shelter and street environments “too comfortable” and remove the motivation to find housing and employment. In reality, helping homeless persons feel engaged, even useful, may provide the foundation and encouragement they need.

Over the long term, supporting health, meaning and belonging among vulnerable individuals could provide a much needed avenue for fighting both homelessness, and the ongoing war on drugs.

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Amy Noise is a science communicator who is fascinated by how and why the world works. Always learning, she is passionate about science and sharing it with the world to improve and protect our health, society and environment. Amy earned her BSc (biology and science communication) at the University of Manchester, and MSc (nutrition science and policy) at King’s College London, UK. She tweets sporadically @any_noise