Mental Disorders Keep Homeless on Streets

Thousands are Homeless but Housing First
Supportive Housing Helps

Mental Disorders Keep Homeless on StreetsRecently USA Today reporter, Rick Jervis, reported that “Mental Disorders Keep Thousands Homeless on the Streets.”

Through a four part series, Jervis writes about “Thousands with mental illness end up homeless, but there are approaches that can help out.” Jervis focused on the need to move the homeless with mental illness off the streets, services that can work, how despair can take lives and that housing results are clear early on.

More than 15% of the 610,000 homeless individuals in the United States, a total of 124,000, suffer from mental illness. And this number which comes from the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s annual Point in Time Count, is most likely an under-counted estimate.

In Washington DC, Gunther Stern is the executive director of the Georgetown Ministry Center and through the agency’s outreach to the street homeless over the years, he has gotten to know many of the city’s homeless by name.

“’It’s frustrating,’ Stern says, briskly moving from one huddle of homeless people to the next. ‘You see the same people over and over again. It’s just so hard to move people like this off the street.’”

Quoting just one of the many homeless individuals who were profiled for the series,

“’There are so many people out there who are mentally ill that need to be treated,’ says Deborah Zelinsky, 45, of Pacoima, Calif., who spent more than two decades homeless before being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, getting treatment and finding an apartment. ‘On the streets, you don’t have time to get treated. You are trying to survive.’”

Experts know that both Housing First and Permanent Supportive Housing work in getting homeless individuals off the street and into housing “but the programs are not reaching those who need it most fast enough.”

One community that is having success with helping the chronically homeless which often has mental illness is Houston. The city is party of a county wide Housing First network which has an average wait time for housing of only 56 days from beginning with initial assessment and ending with the individual moving in. Since the network begin 3 years ago, chronic homelessness has fallen by 57%.

“The key has been getting the mentally ill homeless person housed as quickly as possible, says Tory Gunsolley, president and chief executive of the Houston Housing Authority (one of the network’s partners.) ‘Every time you have the homeless person in front of you, that’s the time to get stuff done,” he says. “Every time you let them go, they wind up back on the street.’”

Click here for the full series.

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  1. Our agency is confronted by mental illness daily, both diagnosed and undiagnosed. It can be a challenge to fully meet the needs of our homeless population based on such a lack of available services in our community. Although we constantly make the necessary referrals, the appointments may be 3 to 4 months until just an assement.

    We need to closely view our collaborations between outside services and Agencies that can contribute to this problem from a more holistic approach.