“You have to have a place, people, and things that can balance [mental illness] out, address it, and alleviate it. You need funding, you need places, you need resources. If its not addressed, it will get swept under the rug, and no one will have the opportunity to get the real issues addressed.” Lamont Davis explains. Davis is a Philadelphia native who has struggled with homelessness and mental health issues like depression and anxiety, throughout his life.
Homelessness is not something that can be simply explained with one or a few factors, yet mental health seems to be a common theme among the homeless in Philadelphia and in the greater United States.
There are many different statistics, but the homeless population is unarguably more likely to struggle with some form of mental illness or mental health issue.
In Philadelphia alone, approximately 15,000 people, including families, access shelter each year, according to Project HOME. In 2015, homeless outreach organizations engaged over 6,500 individuals living on the street, in cars, abandoned buildings, train/bus stations, and other places not meant for human habitation, the organization also reports. This does not include the many homeless people that are not accounted for, which could be for a variety of reasons.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that approximately one in 25 adults in the United States, or four percent of the population, experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities. In comparison, approximately 26 percent of homeless adults staying in shelters live with serious mental illness and an estimated 46 percent live with severe mental illness and or substance abuse disorders.
Denise Robinson, the Outreach Coordinator at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, and someone who was previously a cook at the Church of the Advocate’s soup kitchen, feels that a significant number of people who come in the shelter and soup kitchen struggle with mental illness. “Well, over half of our clientele is mental health issues. I constantly have to help them find ways of getting them their meds when they unfortunately try and self medicate themselves,” Robinson explains.
Although the Church of the Advocate does not provide medication or deal with mental illness, the Church constantly deals with homeless people in need of mental help with no where else to turn, or no knowledge of where they can go for help. Many other shelters have this same problem.
“Of the first two people I helped, who I knew I could help with psych problems that were not on drugs or anything, they had no clue about where to go,” Robinson goes on.
Robinson feels people not getting help is a combination of fear and a lack of knowledge: “A lot of them go unnoticed because they are scared to ask for help,” Robinson states, “A lot of them know that there is something wrong with them, but they are afraid to ask for help and they also don’t know where to go. There are just too many of them who just don’t know where to go. You see ads on T.V., but a lot of these people don’t have T.V.s. It is not like you see a sign on a television pole or something around here.”
Davis says that “It’s almost like you believe you have mental illness because you call it something you can’t see, feel, touch, or smell. In actuality it’s that we are on a different plane than what you are on. Therefore, we are actually looking at you as the foreigner, and we are the originals.”
Davis feels that a sense of comfort is established among others who have mental illness, and deviating outside of this comfort zone can be intimidating: “At the end of the day, this is why we have to interact with other individuals who are the originals, [those with mental illness], and not the foreigners.”
Something else to consider, although it may not be as prevalent of an issue, is that most organizations do not focus on addressing mental health first; it is often a later or final step in the mission to get people off of the streets. Robinson explains the dilemma, “The city in almost all of its programs; the first step is to get them into a shelter; something like that. While that is all well and good, some of these people go into those shelters, and because of their mindset from being mentally [ill], they don’t stay.”
The takeaway from this is that mental health is a large factor in homelessness, but all of the factors that lead to homelessness must be addressed in order to combat the issue. It is not sufficient to address one part of the problem, and expect the other parts to follow suit.
“If you want to quit the cycle, you have to treat everything,” Robinson concluded.