Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Mental Illness and the Homeless

It has recently been reported that 1 out of every 17 individuals in the U.S. suffers from mental illness - that translates to approximately 20.5 million people.  This is a significant number of individuals plagued by this galaxy of diseases that disrupts mental processes.  Those of us who function “normally” do not fully recognize how much processing - within the circuitry of the human brain – is ordinarily required to perform even the most mundane activities.  The daily tasks that are required to work every day, for example, include waking up on time, preparing for the day doing such things as showering, brushing one’s teeth, preparing clothes, planning for the day’s eventualities, taking a bus or train or driving a car.  All of these tasks must be performed in an orderly, precise and timely fashion.  These functions are required simply to get to a place of employment not to mention all the social skills, capabilities, human interactions, use of learned abilities and reliable memory, timeliness, prioritizing of goals etc. that are the minimal requirements to accomplish rather complex work-related functions successfully.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “20 to 25% of the homeless population in the United States suffers from some form of severe mental illness.” This compares to the 6% of the general population that is afflicted with mental illness as reported by the National Institute of Mental Health, 2009. In addition, a survey was conducted in 25 U.S. cities in which the question was posed as to what were the three major causes of homelessness for single adults. The results of this investigation indicated that mental illness was ranked as the third largest cause.  In addition, mental illness was also indicated as playing a significant role as a cause of homelessness among families.  This is not surprising given the fact that living with a mentally ill individual places significant stresses upon the entire family.  Additional fallout from these and similar studies is that individuals with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are particularly vulnerable.
There is yet another level to this issue that adds further complexity and concern –a strong correlation exists between the state of mental health in an individual and the corresponding status of overall physical health.  Individuals that are constantly distracted, confused and disoriented by mental disease are far less likely to pay attention to their physical well-being.  They are far more likely to ignore significant warning signs that would ordinarily send people to their physicians.    Furthermore, they are more likely to contract HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis or other communicable diseases.  They pay less attention to their personal hygiene and often place themselves in dangerous situations that often lead to bodily harm.
In addition, it has been reliably estimated by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration that approximately one-half of the mentally ill homeless in the United States also are substance abusers.  It is a well-established fact that many sufferers from mental illness use drugs as a form of self-medication.

These extensive studies regarding the real implications of mental illness demonstrate that the individual overtaken by aberrations within the functioning brain experiences a satellite of related conditions including substance abuse and the resulting poor physical health.  These conditions when taken together make it very difficult to find reliable employment and ultimately adequate shelter.

In spite of the fact that the scientific disciplines of Neurobiology and Neuroscience have elucidated many of the biological and biochemical mechanisms that are responsible for the galaxy of symptoms that are collectively regarded as mental illness, there remains a great deal of suspicion and the resulting stigma that is associated with those who are afflicted by mental illness.  This kind of fallacious preconception regarding mental illness obscures the indisputable reality that mental illness is a result of definitive imbalances in the biochemistry and function of the human brain.  The society, at large, has inadequately addressed this issue in a way that could produce meaningful help and remediation for those who suffer from mental illness.  A reevaluation of the status of the mentally ill and homelessness would certainly be in the public interest. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Thought provoking, informative, nuanced, candid, charged....fascinating panel discussion with Alison Eisinger (Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness) and Timothy Harris (Real Change)...discussing political advocacy, charity downstream and justice upstream: housing inequality and advocating for the homeless and moderated by Shannon Thomas.

Monday, February 4, 2013

David Bloom on Homelessness

Rev. David Bloom is an ordained American Baptist minister with many years of experience in parish ministry and thirty years in ecumenical leadership in Seattle on social justice issues.  Rev. Bloom served as an associate director for urban ministry at the Church Council of Greater Seattle (1978-1997),  He gave this talk on February 3, 2013 at the Alki UCC Church in West Seattle.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Homelessness in America – Why are we Incapable of Taking Care of our Own?

A recent report (2009) indicated that there are currently 40,000 homeless in New York City.  This is a staggering statistic – this number is equivalent to the entire population of a small town.  Given the harsh winters in New York, this is a very disturbing reality.  New York is by no means unique in this regard.  The following table shows homelessness statistics for the entire nation as of 2009.

In addition, there are many millions of individuals at a greater risk for homelessness as the following table indicates

Note – These data are taken from the National Report on Homelessness from the National Alliance to End Homelessness

These data clearly demonstrate that the major causes for homelessness are the prohibitive cost of housing, unemployment and poverty - conditions that are further aggravated by housing foreclosures.

Despite the economic downturn, a decrease by 1% in homelessness across America between 2009 and 2011 was found in a report issued by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.  The following were some of the findings issued in this report –

·         “The nation’s homeless population decreased 1 percent, or by about 7,000 people; it went from 643,067 in 2009 to 636,017 in 2011. There were a decreased number of people experiencing homelessness in most of the subpopulations examined in this report: families, individuals in families, chronic, and individuals. The only increase was among those unsheltered.

·         The largest decrease was among homeless veterans, whose population declined 11 percent. The number of homeless veterans went from 75,609 in 2009 to 67,495 in 2011, a reduction of about 8,000.
·         The national rate of homelessness was 21 homeless people per 10,000 people in the general population. The rate for veterans was 31 homeless veterans per 10,000 veterans in the general population.
·         Chronic homelessness decreased by 3 percent from 110,911 in 2009 to 107,148 in 2011. The chronically homeless population has decreased by 13 percent since 2007. The decrease is associated with an increase in the number of permanent supportive housing beds from 188,636 in 2007 to 266,968 in 2011. Permanent supportive housing ends chronic homelessness.

·         A majority of homeless people counted were in emergency shelters or transitional housing programs, but nearly 4 in 10 were unsheltered, living on the streets, or in cars, abandoned buildings, or other places not intended for human habitation. The unsheltered population increased by 2 percent from 239,759 in 2009 to 243,701 in 2011, the only subpopulation to increase.
·         The number of individuals in homeless families decreased by 1 percent nationally, but increased by 20 percent or more in 11 states.
·         While the homeless population decreased nationally, it increased in 24 states and the District of Columbia.”
Note – I have purposefully underlined those aspects of the report that I believe warrant special attention.

The horrific state of homelessness impacts men, women, children, the old and the young, the mentally ill and even the handicapped.  There are, in fact, whole families that are homeless.  It is not uncommon for families to be homeless in which the head of the household is employed.  In my mind, there is no justifiable reason for anyone to be homeless in America; the suffering that is endured by so many is wholly unnecessary.  Consider the extent of the waste evident in the federal budget especially in regards to military expenditures and the ludicrous concessions made to corporations with the help of the legions of lobbyists paid exorbitant sums to extricate concessions from an essentially apathetic and pliant Congress.  Consider the vast transfer of public wealth to private hands that has transpired within the last thirty years.  Consider the corruption that is so evident within local governments.  These are governments that often pander to wealth and find all manner of rationales to ignore the plight of so many of their citizens.
National priorities should gravitate around meaningful solutions to societal problems and conditions that lead to unwarranted and unnecessary suffering on the part of those who are effectively economically and politically powerless to change their state of being - with special regard to children.  Homelessness and hunger are issues that need to be placed at the top of the list.  Not to do so, is, in my judgment, morally indefensible.
The state of homelessness in America is evidence of the seemingly pervasive cultural indifference to the living conditions of those less fortunate.  This is a troubling aspect of American life.  It need not be the case, however.  This nation is woefully out of balance.  What is required is a sense of urgency in meeting the needs of those who are in crisis.  What is required is a serious reevaluation of what we, as a people, collectively regards as important and worthy of immediate attention.  In my mind, to ignore those who suffer unnecessarily is to effectively undermine the future.