Last month, the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) held a press conference to announce the release of their report entitled The State of Homelessness in America 2011, documenting the depiction of homelessness in America between 2008 and 2009. The report is available in summary format online with interactive maps or as a pdf download. We frequently see one image of homeless people depicted in the media, but the fact that no map is coded with a single color reflects that homelessness is not a uniform phenomenon. For instance, Vermont saw a 27 percent increase in overall homelessness while experiencing one of the lowest foreclosure rates. Michigan’s overall homeless rate decreased by about 4 percent but it still has the highest unemployment rate, 13.6 percent. It’s important to keep in mind that what may show as a benign color on the map may be far from favorable in reality. In South Dakota, which has the lowest severe housing cost burden, almost 60 percent of households below the poverty line are spending more than half their income on keeping a roof over their heads.
For those who are not so lucky, living without a residence can mean “sleeping rough,” or out in the open, on a city street or in the woods. It can also mean fighting for an ever-moving square of space in a subway, train station or library. Others are eating, sleeping and washing according to someone else’s rules in a shelter run by a church, public authority or private charity. In every case what dominates is the constant, wearing certainty that someone else—the person who tries to take your backpack, the shopkeeper who asks you to keep moving or the kindly shelter volunteer who serves up a meal not of your choosing—has more to say about your life than you do.
Being homeless could be the definition of a Catch-22. Jewel, a participant in the Oral History of Homelessness in Minnesota, shared her story.
“I want to go back to school to be a nurse anesthetist, but I don’t have the funds for school. If you don’t have education you can’t get the job. If you don’t have a job you can’t get an apartment. If you can’t get an apartment then you are stuck in the shelter. And it is like—when does the cycle end?”
According to the NAEH, about 25 percent of people who are homeless also live with a serious mental illness. We at NAMI can picture someone living with mental illness in one of these scenarios and easily grasp how many extra challenges this would pose for treatment and recovery. Keeping a hold of all your belongings is a full-time job, in addition to having to eat and do everything else on someone else’s schedule, both of which may make taking medication regularly more difficult. Continuity of care is extremely rare for people relying upon uncertain transportation, walk-in clinics and poor insurance coverage. One of the most exhausting things is the environment itself. What must it be like for someone living with PTSD who has nowhere to go to get away from overwhelming stimuli, or someone living with schizophrenia who has no routine or support to help her establish a sense of continuity?
Perhaps it is easier for us because we are all too aware of how easy it is for someone to not be caught by the mental health system’s safety net and end up on the street. We react to a group often called “the homeless” and recognize the syntax that feels wrong when people say “the mentally ill.” It makes sense that this group, like any lumped together by a stereotype, would be made up of individuals with undiscovered talents and insight.
Dr. Daniel Kerr wrote about just this sort of discovery as part of the dissertation he wrote while working with the Cleveland Homeless Oral History Project. The name of his paper, “We Know What the Problem Is”: Using Oral History to Develop a Collaborative Analysis of Homelessness from the Bottom Up” shows his move towards a more cooperative role as an academic studying homelessness.
Dr. Kerr reveals that while he was collecting the stories he found something unexpected: many of the individuals he interviewed had a good grasp of the big-picture forces that helped cause homelessness. Specifically, his participants mentioned real estate trends, the criminalization of poverty, growth of the temporary labor industry and changes in the welfare system, to name a few. He documented grassroots organizing efforts among homeless individuals, including the formation of a Day Laborers’ Organizing Committee and a successful squatters’ rights protest.
Perhaps the big picture hasn’t been filled in with the proper solutions because these voices speaking from the bottom up haven’t been included in the equation. Since the Arizona tragedy, the nation’s eyes are turned towards stitching up the holes in our neglected safety net and NAMI has been trying to publicize the idea that investing in mental health treatment is less costly in the long run. The same can be said of homelessness. A report prepared for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority found that “the typical public cost for residents in supportive housing is $605 a month. The typical public cost for similar homeless persons is $2,897.” Yet the NAEH report says that federal dollars earmarked for targeting homelessness are scarce. Learn more about homelessness and mental illness on the NAMI website or in the Veterans Resource Center.