What’s It Like to be Homeless with an Eating Disorder?

Complicated. And More Common Than You Think.

Nicole M. Luongo


Photo Credit: Liam Riby via Unsplash

When you read the words “eating disorder,” what comes to mind?

Do you visualize a young woman? Is she White? Able-bodied? Emaciated?

For decades this is who we have been taught to associate with disordered eating. That anyone else might struggle with food and body image concerns has been overlooked for a few reasons, including selection bias: Research on disordered eating tends to draw from clinical samples, meaning that people without formal diagnoses are excluded. This is particularly true of poor people for whom accessing costly and time — intensive medical care is impossible.

Fortunately, public perception about disordered eating is changing. Non — profit organizations are challenging weight and gender bias in treatment settings, providers with experiential knowledge are starting to frame disordered eating within its cultural contexts, and colonized groups are creating healing spaces outside the constraints of western capitalism. A few “non — traditional” celebrities have also spoken up.

We still have work to do, but we’re slowly making progress. Except, that is, when it comes to unhoused people. Based on omissions from the academic community, non — profit marketing, clinical brochures, online support groups, and treatment centres themselves, homeless people don’t get eating disorders.

As someone who was homeless with an eating disorder, I’m here to say we do. And we’re more common than you think.

I wasn’t homeless because of my eating disorder, but it was one factor that led to my parents expelling me from our family home at nineteen. I was legally an adult, but I was also unwell and had the emotional capacity of a child. I spent the better part of three years at a youth homeless shelter, and I was severely bulimic throughout.

When I tell people this now, they’re surprised, particularly if they’re familiar with the astronomical cost of binging and purging. When I say I was bulimic, I don’t mean that I vomited on occasion. I didn’t “overeat” from time to time, and my behaviours had almost nothing to do with body image. Instead, I gorged on tens of thousands of calories daily…