A recent report from SAMHSA (Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration) tells us that over a five-year period, 3 percent of the population of this country will experience at least one night of homelessness. Should that seemingly small percentage of our population happen to become homeless at the same time, at least eight million people will be looking for a safe place to sleep. The largest demographic group of homeless is single men. One out of every three of those homeless men is a veteran.
Families are the fastest-growing homeless population, soon to be followed by the homeless elderly. At least five percent of the youth in this country will be at one time or another - before they enter adulthood - homeless.
"What's going on here?" we are hopefully asking ourselves. Our question is answered in part by the August special report from the California Budget Project. About two million of California's working families have incomes well below the federal poverty line. In addition to not earning living wages, more workers in California are less likely to have job-related benefits than they were a generation ago. These findings present us with the horrifying reality that more and more Californians live from paycheck to paycheck with limited financial reserves to deal with crises such as unemployment or illness.
Factor into this increasingly dismal picture the reality that only 4 percent of the people in this country suffer from a serious mental illness while at least 20 percent of the homeless are seriously mentally ill. Are those who suffer from serious mental illnesses more likely to become homeless or are those who have become homeless more likely to develop serious mental illnesses? Ultimately it doesn't matter how the adolescent boy or the elderly woman wound up sleeping in the doorway. The urgent issue must be shelter for both of them.
Within the spectrum of housing, many are lucky transients who enter homelessness and exit homelessness quickly. For those who suffer from serious mental illnesses, however, the exit from homelessness is extremely difficult and frequently fleeting.
Unable to access essential resources, the seriously mentally ill homeless descend deeper and deeper into this national crisis. Wearing torn and dirty clothes, they sit at bus stop benches talking not to themselves but to beings invisible to passing motorists. Responding to voices telling them they are hateful and should be punished, they crouch in fear behind supermarket dumpsters. Wanting to contribute to society, they look for jobs and are turned away because they haven't showered in days.
Being homeless is difficult enough. Being homeless and suffering from a serious mental illness is far worse.
Until recently the state of California boasted one of the most successful mental health programs in the nation. Our statewide AB 2034 programs were created to address the needs of the severely mentally ill homeless. The $55 million allocated to those programs was cut from the state budget while other, seemingly less important, concerns remain funded.
Tri-City Mental Health Center's AB2034 program continues - without state funding - to respond to the needs of a hundred men and women who have been homeless and who suffer from serious mental illness. It can't provide housing and vocational services and medication support services and intensive case management services much longer, though.
The woman in white who up until two years ago spent her days surrounded by shopping carts and black trash bags will not return to the streets. Because of Tri-City's AB 2034 program she now lives in permanent Section 8 housing. Others will not fare so well. The money is gone.
These severely mentally ill homeless people are not our strangers. They are our veterans, our cousins, our daughters, our teachers, our brothers and my friend forced again to live in her car. They are ours, and might even one day be you and me. Now, because the money is gone, this tragedy, too, is ours.
Mary Walker Baron, LCSW, is interim program chief at Tri-City Mental Health Center in Pomona.