Mental Illness and Homelessness

By Dr. Chad Audi

A 2007 survey of 23 cities — conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors — revealed 30% of the homeless population have a mental illness. According to the Detroit Department of Health and Wellness Promotion, approximately 60% of chronically homeless people in the Detroit area have underlying issues of mental illness and/or substance abuse.

Mental disorders prevent people from doing everyday things like going to work and school or taking care of a home and family. The closings of psychiatric hospitals over several years, diminishing community-based programs and outpatient services, and a lack of affordable housing options leave the mentally ill with no place to go and no hope of getting better. Many are distrustful or too afraid to seek help and react irrationally toward those trying to help. This pushes them into a life on the streets. The Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries (DRMM) reaches out to those with mental health issues by partnering with other agencies such as the Detroit Health Department to provide medical and social services assistance to some of the most vulnerable members of our society.

A movie depicting mental health issues among the homeless opens in theaters later this month. “The Soloist” is based on a true story and features actor Jamie Foxx as a brilliant musician suffering from mental illness and homelessness. He is befriended by a Los Angeles Times columnist, played by Robert Downey Jr., who helps him fulfill his dreams. The movie promises to show how a seemingly hopeless life can be altered for the better.

Although there are many reasons why individuals end up living on the streets, mental illness is prevalent among the homeless population. People with mental disorders require ongoing access to treatment and rehabilitation services. They are human beings who should be treated with dignity and respect. As represented in “The Soloist,” many homeless people already have amazing skills that just need to be nurtured and enhanced. They simply require our support and encouragement.



Filed under General

3 responses to “Mental Illness and Homelessness

  1. While it may be true that either perceived, labeled or diagnosed “mental illness is prevalent among the homeless population”, it also is no less true that it is most likely no less prevalent in the housed population as well, if not even greater than among those who find themselves unhoused.

    The point being that being perceived, labeled or diagnosed with mental illness does not mean one is more prone to ending up houseless due to that factor, whether alone or combined with other potential factors; save the fact that many persons perceived, labeled or diagnosed with serious and persistent mental illness (SPMI) are often living in poverty and, as such, subsisting either on very low or no incomes and thus not have enough in the way of financial income to afford housing. Plus the fact that it has gotten hard to obtain and retain Section 8 housing choice rental vouchers or access other HUD funded programs, particularly since this is one of the populations when houseless or at risk of such who are no longer given a priority when it comes to these programs.

    Also true is that many of those labeled or diagnosed with mental illness or perceived as such are people who have experienced severe trauma, including such experienced at the hands of others while living houseless or the trauma experienced from the experience of living houseless itself.

    In addition and, beyond trauma, what happens during the experience of living houseless can easily get one perceived, labeled or diagnosed with mental illness as a default at times.

    All to suggest that, besides needing to “be treated with dignity and respect”, those of us who are perceived, labeled or diagnosed with mental illness also need access to real*(1), safe, decent, affordable housing as well.

    *(1: i.e., not homeless shelters or so-called transitional housing)

    It should also be understood that many of the traditional “treatment and rehabilitation services” available, especially within public provider systems, are not only forced upon us, but also can be trauma inducing and not at all considered as helpful, except by those who think or believe it is for our own good.

    What is needed is a system, whether it comes to housing, homeless or other human services provision that we — who are living houseless or otherwise express a need for certain services on a voluntary basis — are an equal member of the team and that, as the sole person of the team on the receiving end, our expressed wishes and needs are taken seriously and heeded; otherwise everyone in the cycle is set up for failure, most especially the person on the receiving end of things.

  2. In just beginning some fresh research concerning these matters myself, I hope to call to your attention to the information provided within the ‘Mental Illness and Homelessness’ NCH Fact Sheet #5 Published by the National Coalition for the Homeless, June 2 (via PDF version; Adobe Acrobat Reader):

    In attention, I would direct your attention to the following study findings (including the below key excerpt gleaned from within the abstract):

    Perceived Reasons for Loss of Housing and Continued Homelessness Among Homeless Persons With Mental Illness (via Psychiatric Services; 56:172-178, February 2005):


    CONCLUSIONS: Homeless persons with mental illness mostly report the same reasons for loss of housing and continued homelessness as those who do not have a mental illness. This finding supports the view that structural solutions, such as wider availability of low-cost housing and income support, would reduce the risk of homelessness among persons with mental illness, as among other vulnerable social groups.”


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