If you can believe it, the rate of mental illness among homeless people is double the rate found in the general population. This means that, even though the statistic for Americans with mental illness is 1 in 5 people, the rate among homeless individuals is 1 in 3. These statistics leave us with many questions.
Why is the rate of mental illness so high in the homeless population? What factors impact these numbers and how can we find a solution for over 200,000 people experiencing homelessness while mentally ill? Each of these questions has a series of complicated answers that require looking at factors contributing to poverty and poor health in order to understand this epidemic.
Section One: Contributing Factors
Gentrification happens when urban planning and renovation is accompanied by an influx of higher-class individuals. As wealthier people move into the area, landlords and business owners raise prices to capitalize on their new customers’ wealth. But, as the cost of living in the area increases, so does the number of lower-income people being displaced.
As more new individuals move into an area, the culture that existed there begins to change. The community often finds itself split between the old and the new, with this divide causing many people to feel like an outsider in a place they’ve called home for years. Displaced residents face high amounts of stress which is only piled higher by the act of having to find a new place to live.
A study by Berkeley professors found that chronic stress can create long-lasting changes in brain structure that can predispose a person to mental illness. Poverty can be a major contributing factor to chronic stress, which means displaced individuals not only struggle to find affordable housing, but must also face the physical and mental toll of the stress it brings.
Financial inequality based on race isn’t a new phenomenon. The cycle of poverty is perpetuated by isolating African Americans in areas that lack employment and housing opportunities. Even if these housing disparities didn’t exist, though, there’s still a massive gap between what Caucasians and people of color earn.
An African American male with an Associate’s degree has the same chance of getting a job as a Caucasian with a high school diploma. Even with a higher level of education, African Americans still struggle to find employment that allows them to make a living wage.
In 2009, more than 40% of America’s homeless population consisted of people with a disability, and those numbers have continued to rise since then. Disabled citizens are often unable to hold full-time jobs and are forced to rely on Supplemental Security Income (SSI). These small payments average 44% below the federal poverty level. Poor health and poverty have a strong correlation and the rate of illness increases drastically when people are without homes.
Wage disparity also has a huge impact on the disabled. For every dollar an abled person earns, disabled people earn an average of just 63 cents.
Section Two: What America Can Do
Access to Care
More and more states are limiting access to mental health care and closing down vital services that the mentally ill need desperately. From 2009 to 2012, states cut $5 billion from mental health care services. And what happens when there’s no psychiatric hospital beds available? People suffering with mental illnesses start occupying other areas such as emergency rooms, jails and city streets.
These temporary situations cost the US over 100 billion every year in lost productivity. Even those who can access help rarely receive adequate assistance. Making mental health care affordable and accessible is one step in a long list of things that need to be done to reduce the homeless population.
The stigma attached to mental illness makes it scary or even impossible for people suffering to seek help. The truth is that people with a mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence than they are to be perpetrators of it. In fact, people suffering from mental illnesses are 10 times more likely than the general population to be the victim of a violent crime. Unfortunately, these statistics do little to stop news and media from attributing violent acts to the mentally ill.
Here are some things each of us can do:
- You can help eliminate stigma by fighting back against poor representations of mentally ill people in the media.
- Being conscious of language is another way to fight stigma. Words like “crazy,” “lunatic” and “psycho” are all things that negatively portray mental illness.
- Talk openly about mental health. If you had a broken leg, no one would expect you to hide it. Treat mental illnesses the same way you would treat a physical one — as a valid problem that requires care.
- Give to your community. One child named Khloe is doing her part by creating hand-sewn care bags for homeless people. These bags include basic necessities like toothbrushes, socks and feminine products. Her project, called Khloe Kares, gives homeless people access to items they often go without and helps them feel like human beings.
“Housing First” opportunities make great strides towards reducing the number of homeless individuals. The problem is that it’s not being employed on a wide enough scale. As quickly as housing is found for homeless individuals, another person is in need of a home.
Permanent housing has been shown to be a cost-effective way to reduce the number of homeless people. What the homeless population needs is safe and affordable housing, and to achieve this, America must shrink the housing affordability gap.
Getting homeless people into housing is one thing, and helping them stay there is another. By offering services like job training and access to childcare, we can put homeless people in a better position to achieve stability in their lives. Community-based counseling services are another great option for providing stability.
The stigma of mental illness only creates problems, and creating spaces to openly discuss mental health and other struggles enables citizens to seek the help they need without shame. The US is in dire need of policy changes. With access to living-wage jobs, affordable healthcare and adequate benefits for the disabled, America could drastically reduce the number of people living in poverty and the homeless population.
Mentally ill people in the homeless population are just like your average citizen. They desire a safe place to stay without fear of violence. They want to live without worrying about when their next meal will be, or if they’ll have a place to sleep that night. With an open mind and more progressive policies, the US can go a long way towards helping those with mental illness get the help they truly need to be healthier and happier individuals with a chance for a future.