Homelessness, Mental Illness and COVID-19

Stopping the Cycle of Incarceration and Assisting Individuals with Mental Illness Experiencing Homelessness

On April 14, nextavenue previewed a new PBS documentary about a Florida judge’s work to end the cycle of homelessness and incarceration.

wenty years ago, Leifman created the Criminal Mental Health Project (CMHP) in Miami-Dade County, Florida. The project diverts non-violent offenders with serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression from the criminal justice system and into treatment programs in the community. The non-violent offenders with serious mental illness that are guided to treatment programs are connected with job training and housing.

The article “When Homelessness, Mental Illness and COVID-19 Collide,” reports on The Definition of Insanity, the new documentary streaming on PBS.org. The program follows Leifman and his CMHP team.

Through his work, Miami-Dade County Associate Administrative Judge Steven Leifman saw the intersection between criminal justice and mental health. Eight years ago, he learned from mental health professionals that cases of schizophrenia historically spike following pandemics in the United States.

Regarding the current COVID-19 pandemic, “He’s convinced that when the pandemic begins to dissipate, “we’re not only going to see an increase in PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), we’ll likely see a major increase in schizophrenia. The viruses can be a trigger for people with a predisposition,” Leifman says. The current mental health system is inadequate to handle this, he says, and things will be that much worse if mental health illnesses spike following the coronavirus pandemic.”

If mental illness does spike following the coronavirus pandemic, a homeless service system that was overtaxed during the pandemic will face a second crisis.

“For too long, Leifman says, the U.S. has allowed people with serious mental illnesses to be processed in criminal cases instead of moving them into treatment. “When you end up spending your entire adult life recycling through this criminal justice system, I tell people it’s the definition of insanity, where you keep doing the same thing again and again, expecting a different outcome,” he says.”

There is a strong connection between people experiencing homelessness and mental illness in New Jersey. NJCounts 2019, the statewide point in time count of the homeless in New Jersey, a snapshot of homelessness in New Jersey, found that about a third of the population experiencing homelessness on January 23, 2019 experienced mental illness.

Among disabled persons experiencing homelessness, 59.6% reported having mental health issues making this the most prevalent disability. This represents the presence of mental illness among 60.5% of the disabled adult homeless population and 30.1% of the total identified population experiencing homelessness.