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.