Two of the biggest challenges faced by the homeless community are addiction and mental illness. These obstacles are especially unfortunate because they may prevent homeless individuals from seeking appropriate treatment. That is to say, a mental illness can make it harder for individuals to discern what is truly in their best interest. Addiction, in turn, eats up savings and can prompt destructive behaviors such as stealing and lying.
The image of homelessness is an uncomfortable one. Few of us feel comfortable with the mere sight of a homeless person and, for some, this discomfort gives way to several charming (if typically untrue) fantasies about homelessness.
We tell ourselves that being homeless isn’t so bad. People learn how to survive, right? And what could be better than accepting donations all day? But maybe we forget that survival can be scarring and that for every donation made, a thousand sneers pass by.
We tell ourselves that people choose to be homeless. If they didn’t want to be on the streets, they’d go out and get a job, right? The local fast food joints are always hiring. But for every job opportunity that comes along, there are many barriers to employment. In other words, you can’t rent an apartment because you don’t have a job, but you can’t get a job without providing a permanent address.
To illustrate, imagine the situation of a homeless person suffering from severe mental illness such as paranoid schizophrenia. Waves of anxiety throughout the day make even simple tasks unbearable and delusions create conspiracies out of a simple sideways glance. Unable to realize s/he needs medical attention, the individual turns to illegal substances to mask the symptoms of mental illness. Buying drugs is dangerous and expensive, of course, but nothing else effectively masks the terrors daily life.
In this way, the cycle of homelessness starts. Friends and family may offer temporary housing, only to turn the person away when they begin trading household appliances for drugs. Soup kitchens and shelters provide meals and a place to stay, but may close on weekends or during the day. Plus, many are simply unable to provide the holistic care these individuals require.
The Center for Respite Care is trying to close this gap by providing medical care, counseling, advocacy, and appropriate referrals for the homeless community. There is, unfortunately, a much greater demand for our services than we can match with the resources we have.
Certainly, there is a significant portion of the homeless community which struggles with mental illness and/or addiction. It would be a mistake, however, to characterize the homeless community as mentally ill addicts, when this is only the reality of some. Each homeless person has a story to share and the more we listen, the more we will realize that homelessness could happen to any of us via a string of tragedies.