State governments across the United States are slashing funding for services for the mentally ill. The unsurprising result is more mentally ill people without homes.
Mother Jones reports that “between 2009 and 2012, states cut a total of $4.35 billion in public mental-health spending from their budgets.” South Carolina cut nearly 40 percent of its budget for mental health. In Illinois it was close to 32 percent.
Alabama plans to close most of its psychiatric hospitals. Where will those patients go? They will join their fellow sufferers on the streets. The reasons, as described by The National Coalition for the Homeless, are obvious:
Serious mental illnesses disrupt people’s ability to carry out essential aspects of daily life, such as self care and household management. Mental illnesses may also prevent people from forming and maintaining stable relationships or cause people to misinterpret others’ guidance and react irrationally. This often results in pushing away caregivers, family, and friends who may be the force keeping that person from becoming homeless. As a result of these factors and the stresses of living with a mental disorder, people with mentally illnesses are much more likely to become homeless than the general population
While 6 percent of the general population is severely mentally ill, one-third of homeless people have untreated mental illnesses. The New York Times wrote in 1998 that there were so many mentally ill homeless people in Berkeley, California, “it’s like a mental ward on the streets.” In Roanoke, Virginia, 70 percent of homeless people had mental health problems, and the homeless population there grew 363 percent over 20 years. Last month Hawaii News Now reported that 60% of homeless people in one survey were mentally ill. That is ten percent more than in 2012. In San Luis Obispo, California, 64 percent of homeless people who sought help were mentally ill. There were probably others not mentally capable of seeking help, who would have increased that percentage.
The budget cuts are making things worse. The results are nightmarish existences.
According to the Mental Illness Policy Organization,
The quality of life for these individuals is abysmal. Many are victimized regularly. One study found that 28 percent of homeless people with previous psychiatric hospitalizations obtained some food from garbage cans and 8 percent used garbage cans as a primary food source.
These are helpless people. Hawaii’s Institute for Human Services’ Marc Alexander says, “they really need our help. They cannot help themselves.”
We might as well dump children by the side of the road to fend for themselves.
By cutting their budgets for mental health services, states are not saving themselves money. It costs less to treat people appropriately, including providing housing, than it does to pay for the emergency room services, shelters and prisons they wind up in instead, according to a 2007 study reported in the Los Angeles Times.
That “providing housing” part is key, but it’s not enough on its own. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless,
Even if homeless individuals with mental illnesses are provided with housing, they are unlikely to achieve residential stability and remain off the streets unless they have access to continued treatment and services. Research has shown that supported housing is effective for people with mental illnesses. In addition to housing, supported housing programs offer services such as mental health treatment, physical health care, education and employment opportunities, peer support, and daily living and money management skills training. Successful supported housing programs include outreach and engagement workers, a variety of flexible treatment options to choose from, and services to help people reintegrate into their communities. Homeless people with mental illnesses are more likely to recover and achieve residential stability if they have access to supported housing programs.
Unfortunately, lack of funding is a significant barrier to the successful implementation of supported housing programs.
Helping homeless people with mental health problems isn’t a question of finding and spending more money. We already are spending that money, to fund prisons, shelters, emergency rooms, and other safety-net institutions. The question is directing the money to the right place: supported housing programs, where people get both housing and help with their mental illness and with day-to-day life. All it takes is the political will at the state level. Sadly, political will is in very short supply these days.
Please sign our petition to ask your state’s governor to adequately fund supported housing programs for homeless people with mental illness.
Photo credit: iStockphoto