Homelessness and Mental Illness

Whenever I answer the “what do you do for work?” question, one of the follow-up questions I almost always get is: “How many people are homeless because of mental illness?” It’s a logical question. Walking around downtown San Diego, or nearly any city in America, it won’t take long before you come across someone with noticeably poor hygiene who appears to be talking, often angrily, to the air. Seeing that same snapshot over and over again creates a certain impression.

Statistically, there’s a big correlation between mental illness and homelessness. Nearly a third of homeless people in San Diego last year were willing to admit to strangers (volunteer interviewers) that their mental issues were a significant factor in their continued homelessness. And that’s just self-reporting; plenty of others would be embarrassed to admit something like that, or are in denial.

The problem is that, behind the “homelessness and mental illness” question, there are often some underlying assumptions being made. Assumptions about who is worth helping, who is capable of change, who is worth the investment–and who isn’t.

Nothing has the power to change someone’s perspective like personal experience: getting to know mentally ill homeless folks on a personal level, hearing their stories, learning to love their idiosyncrasies, and yes, being driven crazy by their unreasonableness. You start to see that the snapshot of someone talking to the air downtown is just that: a snapshot. You see people on their good days, not just their bad days. You start to see that the fears, loves, and hates going on beneath the surface of the delusions are a lot more relateable–more normal–than they first appeared. And you slowly begin to realize how street life itself is a cause, not just an effect, of mental problems.

Consider our dear friend, Don. Don has schizophrenia and was homeless for four decades on the streets of San Diego. On the streets, Don had an unkempt beard, gnarly fingernails, a quick temper, and a tendency to growl and bite his own fist when he got upset. At first glance, it was hard to know how to help someone like him. Today, Don is being taken care of in a nursing home. His needs are met and he has a safe and stable place to live, perhaps for the first time in his adult life. Although his physical health is declining, his mental health is better than we’ve ever seen it. He still has some symptoms of schizophrenia and anxiety disorder, but he is calm, easy to talk to, clean-shaven, and content. Best of all, he has a clear and unwavering faith in Jesus.

Mental illness is a contributing factor in many people’s homelessness. But it is not the totality of who someone is, and it does not have to be the end of their story.

The Role of the Church

Even though the Christian Church has fallen out of fashion in many modern circles, we see every week (and sometimes every day) that people in crisis still turn to the Church for solace, banking on the kindness of God’s people. Especially because our church building is so iconic and so “churchy,” people frequently knock on our doors seeking everything from a bathroom, to a borrowed phone, to a word of encouragement or a shoulder to cry on. It’s striking to think that people still know that we as Christians are commanded by God to help the poor and show mercy to the hurting. In desperate moments, they depend on us to fulfill that commandment – and so, they show up at church.

Jesus’s greatest gift to the world is the gift of himself. Likewise, the greatest gift his people can give is the gift of themselves as Jesus makes himself known through them. When it comes to the plight of homelessness, the funding and services provided by government agencies are highly needed. And yet, the role of the Church – of people giving of themselves to others with the love of Christ – is invaluable and irreplaceable. Anyone can throw money at homelessness. It’s the Church that throws people.

For Christians, this means we ought to remember our sacred obligation to personally engage with the homeless and get to know them as fellow human beings, rather than outsourcing them as a “problem” for the government to deal with. It’s not the job of social services to love people. That’s our job as imitators of Christ.

For policy makers and service providers, this means that the Church’s role in the homeless community should not be overlooked. Many of the people we serve don’t trust anyone; and yet they trust us, as the only people who see them as people and love them with God’s love. This gives us a level of access into people’s lives that professional agencies need, and yet often miss.

I saw this happen today. One of our Ladle guests is enrolled in a local program for mentally ill homeless seniors. This morning, I was texting with his nurse about tracking him down and changing his medication. By building collaboration between the social service agency and our church, we are both able to serve and care for him so much better than either of us could do alone.