May is Mental Health Awareness Month in America. Mental Health America has been been spreading awareness specifically during the month of May through the media, local events, and screenings since 1949.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, in 2009 20 to 25 percent of the homeless population in the United States suffered from a severe mental illness. To put this into perspective, only 6% of Americans overall were considered severely mentally ill.
In 2015 the U.S. Conference of Mayors conducted a study in which 22 cities were asked to identify what the three leading causes of homelessness are in their communities. Mental illness was listed as the third largest cause for the homelessness of individuals and was submitted by 40 percent of the cities. Whereas, in regards to families experiencing mental illnesses, only 20% percent of cities attributed mental illness as a cause.
In 2017 The National Coalition for the Homeless stated, “According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, one third of people experiencing homelessness in the United States suffer from some form of severe mental illness.” This shows up to a 13% increase since 2009. This was also the first year that the homeless population in America rose since 2010.
Poor mental health can severely affect a person’s daily life, making seemingly easy tasks seem unbearable, in particular self-care and house-hold management seem to suffer the most. Those living with mental illnesses may also experience difficulty forming and stabilizing relationships as well as misinterpreting others’ guidance and acting rationally. According to The National Institute of Mental Health, those diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are at the most risk for experiencing conditions that lead to homelessness.
We spoke to 10 homeless individuals about mental illness and how it has (or has not) affected them through out their lifetimes. These are their stories:
“Spare change?” Brian’s voice rang out as we turned to address his companion, Lenard. Lenard continued to remain indifferent yet open to answering our questions. His answers were delayed and choppy, his gaze rarely wavered from his cell phone.
Lenard is 48 years old and has been homeless for the past three months. He credits his entrance to the streets to his sentence in prison. Lenard did not share what he was swerving time in prison for, but when he was released he had no where else to go.
He has also been residing in a shelter for the past three months. Unlike a lot of the other individuals we’ve spoken to, Lenard was fortunate enough to be accepted into a shelter almost immediately after joining life on the streets.
A majority of those who shared their stories with Naming the Homeless claim that they have waited for months at a time to gain access to a shelter– and still have not seen a break in the pattern. Due to this, some of them simply gave up on the shelter system entirely and no longer pursue their resources because of the lack of consistency in support they have received.
“Part of the reason [for avoiding shelters] was, you know, the paranoia and the fear of large groups of people that comes along with schizophrenia, but part of the reason was, and I think this is more generally the case with people, is that you hear a lot of terrible things about shelters, that shelters are dangerous places, that they’re full of drugs and drug dealers, that people will steal your shoes, and there’s bedbugs and body lice. And yeah, unfortunately a lot of those things are true,” was an explanation that David Pritle, a man that has experienced homelessness in Washington, D.C., gave Ari Shapiro during the National Public Radio (NPR) segment: “Why Some Homeless Choose the Streets Over Shelters.”
During the same session a director of a small shelter in Colorado, John, confirmed the bias of staying in shelters that Pritle shared, “On a winter night you can hardly sleep because the hacking is so heavy. The smell…,” he continued, “I think they really, you know, they’re really tough to stay in. They really are, and they’re really crowded. The good ones, when they run well, get very, very crowded, and ours is very crowded. We have an overflow into local faith communities.”
Unlike Pritle or Lenard’s friend, Brian, Lenard himself has never suffered from mental illness nor did it contribute in any way to his becoming homeless. “No, I’ve never experienced anything like that,” he told us.
“Oh, don’t like him fool you, he’s crazier than me!” Brian chimed in sarcastically and chuckled.
Lenard’s gaze finally snapped from his phone as he turned to address Brian, “Man, don’t tell them that… they’re going to get the wrong idea.” Brian apologized sheepishly and Lenard returned his attention back to his device.
We briefly spoke about Lenard’s plans for the future. He is grateful for the shelter that he is residing in and they are helping him with his job search. “I want to save up enough money to get my own place,” he concluded. When asked what kind of job he is looking for Lenard looked up and met my gaze with a glint of dismay in his eyes and replied, “Anything.” He broke eye contact.
I seemed to be then that Lenard remembered the mostly empty McDonald’s cup that was strategically placed between he and Brian for that’s where his gaze landed, instead of back to his phone.
“I’m sorry,” Brian quickly apologized to Lenard, “I got caught up in the conversation and forgot… Spare change? Spare change…” He called out to a couple passing by, they didn’t miss a beat as they breezed past.
Subjects affected by mental illness: 2/10 (remains the same)