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:
George stood ahead of a long line of people awaiting to have their photos taken at the infamous ‘LOVE’ statue located at Love Park in Center City, Philadelphia. As each group of people approached the front of the line he would offer to take the photo for them, so that everyone could be included. He does this every weekend.
Seeing George’s continuous loop of kindness brought a smile to my face. Many of the groups he confronted were eager to take him up on his offer. Some even asked him to be present in their photos, or offered food in return. If they declined, George stepped back and waited patiently to offer his assistance to the next in line.
George has been homeless for the last seven years and has had no prior experiences of homelessness. He is now 60 years young.
“I’ve never had any mental illnesses, but I see it around a lot,” George commented about mental illnesses among the homeless. He also appeared to associate addiction with mental illness and added that he’ll sometime see the homeless be approached with offers in exchange of information for a survey, George says that they are treated like guinea pigs. In return participants are rewarded a cash profit, he often sees this opportunity wasted on drugs and alcohol.
“Drugs,” George explains the root of his homelessness, “[They] brought me all the way down– to a place where I felt like I couldn’t be picked back up.” Although it was just one drug, cocaine, that controlled George’s life for years.
His addiction began in Camden, New Jersey, where he thrived as an addict. Over time, his addiction began over taking his life. George became a person whom he never wanted to be and his addiction began to spiral out of control. Inevitably, he lost him home. In desperate need of a change of lifestyle, George decided to gather his possessions and move to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
“In Philly, I’m a completely different person. I crossed that bridge and I became some one else, I haven’t touched drugs since I got here,” George says. His move to Philadelphia has proved to be a clean slate, he has been clean for seven years which is the same amount of time that George says that he has been homeless. Since swearing off cocaine, George has traveled back to Camden but has never experienced a relapse.
“I raised five boys, none of them have a mom,” he told us. Before succumbing to drugs George raised five sons on his own. While talking about his boys George beamed, he is proud of how far they have come in their own lives. Throughout the years he has maintained contact with his sons and talks to them over the phone regularly. However, George revealed that none of them know that he is homeless.
George has not told his sons about his current situation because he does not want them to see him any differently. He also doesn’t want his children to offer to help him in any way because this is something that he feels that he has to do on his own. He wants his sons to focus on their own families. I asked George if he would rather not have his story shared and he replied, “I’m a strong believer that everything happens for a reason. Maybe this is a sign that it’s time for them to know.”
Currently, George is staying at a shelter. Although, he says he only remains there for the bedding and spends the rest of his time on the streets, looking for an opportunity to work as well as making his own difference.
“I need a job,” George knows where his priorities stand but has been struggling to come across an opportunity to earn a steady income. “I’m still working on it,” he says.
When he’s not job searching he’s here, at Love Park, taking pictures for strangers for free. Although, he remains hopeful by the end of the day he will receive at least a meal or a few dollars.
He has also been in touch with the organization Outreach, which was also mentioned by Brian in Mental Health and Our Homeless Part Two. Every time he when a member of Outreach he earns a signature, when he gains enough signatures he will be placed into a housing program.
“It is what is is,” George says about his current situation, “but God is good and I don’t have a worry in the world.” He puts his faith in God and believes that everything happens for a reason. George claims that the Bible knows his life story and says, “There’s no such thing as the wrong choice.” He’s confident that he is on the path that he is meant to be on and that he is doing the right thing.
“I’m happy, I love people, and I’m not disappointed,” as he spoke he radiated positivity and maintained a constant, warm smile. George will not let his lack of a place to call home bring him down.
In the meantime, George will continue to serve his community. Although pictures in front of the LOVE statue are only permitted on the weekends, George faithfully visits the park every single day to clean the park by himself.
“I stay to myself,” George told us. He’d rather focus on himself first before building other relationships. Since he has been on the streets of Philly he has had no history of drugs or crime.
“I may not be aware of all of the resources available, but that doesn’t mean that I have to quit.” George understands that getting off the streets takes time, “I’m not giving up,” he stated firmly. “I’m a 60 year old with a 18 year old body,” he told us and flashed us a smile. His spirit definitely confirms this.
“I’m just as happy as I’m going to be. Of course, I’d like to have or a car and a home, but I’m satisfied with all that I can handle,” George says he is content with his lifestyle because he is living as his best self, which is more important than living up to materialist standards.
Subjects affected by mental illness: 2/10 (remains the same)