“I Never Felt Settled”
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It's befitting to use this space to share what I have witnessed in my work with chronically homeless individuals who also experience issues with mental health. I vividly recollect a conversation with a participant I will identify as Lily. She shared with me that years of being homeless had such a significant impact on her already-existing mental illness that she struggled with making the transition from being homeless to housed. After months of being housed, Lily struggled with the process of unpacking, even with support. Lily expressed that I wouldn't understand what it feels like to be homeless and have a mental illness: "I never feel settled or a sense of belonging, so I have to stay packed just in case." It was in that moment I had to modify the way I supported Lily and the many participants after her in their processes of unpacking mentally and physically.
Homeless and Mentally Ill
Often, experiencing the harsh realities of homelessness has the potential to cause someone to develop a mental illness or exacerbate the symptoms of an existing mental illness. Let's take a look at the prevalence of mental illness among those experiencing homelessness to understand the full scope of this social problem. According to the Annual Homeless Assessment report delivered to Congress in 2017 reports that "553,724 people were experiencing homelessness on
a single night in 2017." The same report highlights that more than 25 percent approximately 140,000 of the 553,274 have a serious mental illness. The prevalence of severe mental illness is much higher among those experiencing homelessness than in the general population. Mental illness has been cited as one of the major causes among those experiencing homelessness, specifically chronic homelessness.
Double Stigma: Homeless and Mentally Ill
If you think the numbers are concerning let's explore the stigma around being homeless and having a mental illness. It's a double whammy, double the stigma. Judgments that exist around those experiencing homelessness and mental illness are often demonizing and dehumanizing. Those labels include but are not limited to "unstable," "crazy," "derelict," "violent," and "weak character," to name a few.
These gross misconceptions and misjudgments fail to speak to the essence of individuals who are confronted every day with the harsh realities of being homeless and having a mental illness.
These misconceptions have infiltrated their way into the media, public, policies, and other social constructs. Sadly, individuals experiencing mental illness and homelessness are over-criminalized and over-incarcerated and are not connected to the appropriate supports and resources to harness healing.
Change for the Better!
The good news is that the tides are turning because of advocacy and education. There are agencies, such as Renaissance Social Services, that are pioneering the way to connect individuals with affordable, quality housing. These people have been marginalized because they are homeless and living with a mental illness. The beauty of work that is done here at Renaissance is that we operate and support our participants from a housing-first model. It is ingrained in the fibers of our mission that "housing is absolutely a human right." At Renaissance, we strive to knock down and keep down the barriers that once kept certain groups of people from receiving affordable, quality housing. Here at Renaissance, we believe that safe and affordable housing is a catalyst for our participants to re-engage or become connected to mental health services, medical services, and other supportive services. Through compassionate and supportive care, our participants have the opportunity to achieve goals and regain a sense of power and autonomy.
Indeed, having permanent and supportive housing is mental health!