When Mental Illness and Homelessness Collide: What Do We Do?
Do you personally know someone who is homeless? Have you walked by a homeless person on the street recently? Believe it or not, homelessness can affect any of us. No one is exempt from this reality. Life is simply too unpredictable to predict our future accurately. For many struggling with homelessness, it can be rather easy to hide. With a PO Box or the address of a close family member, no one will ever know that an individual is living on the streets day and night. Even more disheartening is that the majority are children or adults with severe or untreated mental illnesses in the US.
Do you have a family member with an untreated or severe mental illness? Do you have a hard time getting them to see they need treatment? Do you fear they will rebel and end up homeless? You are not alone. Many families, caregivers, and friends deal with this dilemma. For many families they feel insecure, uncertain, and fearful when a severe or untreated mental illness leads to hospitalization, incarceration, or homelessness. There is rarely if ever anyone to hold their hand through the process. Aloneness describes their reality.
Many believe that homelessness is the result of lack of motivation, substance abuse, or poverty. But the reality is that homelessness is also the result of abuse, trauma, and mental illness among many other factors. According to the National Alliance To End Homelessness (2013), about 7% of the homeless population lives in rural areas where resources are scarce. They also report that at least 250,000 families are homeless, while a significant portion of the homeless are young parents.
According to the Treatment Advocacy Center-TAC (2013), “between 150,000 and 200,000 people, of the estimated 744,000” are among the homeless population. A consequence of inadequate or nonexistent psychiatric treatment is often homelessness. Most people do not know that the majority are regularly victimized, use garbage bins (8%) as food sources, embrace libraries as “temporary shelters,” and can put society at risk if they have an untreated or severe mental illness. The TAC supports Assisted Outpatient Treatment as a viable solution to this dilemma.
The National Center On Family Homelessness reports that 1 in 45 kids, or 1.6 million, are homeless in America. These kids are more likely to suffer from gastrointestinal problems, ear infections, asthma, have high rates of obesity, respiratory infections, and experience three times the behavioral problems of children who are not homeless.
Awareness within families dealing with severe or untreated mental illness is important. Here is a list of things families, caregivers, and friends can do to help their loved one:
- Have a discussion: Although quite difficult in severe circumstances, it may be useful to have a discussion with your loved one about the state of their mental illness, homelessness, or future. Whatever the case, conversation can lead to better options.
- Offer your support and resources: Offer to provide a roof until the individual can do better. If this is not an option, offer to help that person find help and tap into sources you know can help.
- Consider involuntary commitment: If your loved one isn’t faring well and is refusing treatment, you may be able to get them into treatment without their consent. See “When Your Loved One Needs Hospitalization.”
- Learn about homelessness: Becoming more familiar with the challenges of homelessness can help you intervene appropriately. You can also advocate for the proper care of your loved one when you are better informed.
- Self-care: Remember to take care of yourself during this time. It is important that you eat well, sleep, take breaks, and engage in activities that rejuvenate you. You cannot help if you are not well.
- Try HUD: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development offers resources for individuals experiencing homelessness. Housing assistance, housing counseling, food banks, supplemental income/food stamps, and government medical benefits can all be helpful for your loved one.
We have a national problem that deserves much more attention. Sometimes it feels as if there is no way to help the homeless or mentally ill. But don’t fall prey to this defeatist mind-set. We can make changes, but we have to educate ourselves and become motivated by the facts.
Click here for a national directory of homeless shelters and social services
- Read the complete fact list of needs and issues characteristic of homeless families
- Read more about the mentally ill and their use of libraries as shelter
- To teach youngsters about the affects of poverty, check into Just Neighbors
- For resources and publications on homelessness in families, check into The National Center On Family Homelessness
All the best
Editor’s note: This article was originally published February 10, 2013 but has been updated to reflect comprehensiveness and accuracy.
Homeless Children Education’s Fund. (n.d.). The “go-to” place for facts, figures, agencies, and useful websites. Retrieved February 26, 2013, from http://www.homelessfund.org/resources.html.
National Alliance to End Homelessness. (2013). Issues. Retrieved February 10, 2013, from http://www.endhomelessness.org/pages/issues.
Treatment Advocacy Center. (2011). Homelessness: One of the consequences of failing to treat individuals with severe mental illness-backgrounder. Retrieved February 26, 2013, from http://www.treatmentadvocacycenter.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1379&Itemid=217.
Hill, T. (2014). When Mental Illness and Homelessness Collide: What Do We Do?. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 22, 2017, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/caregivers/2013/09/when-mental-illness-and-homelessness-collide-what-to-do/