Action Project

Mental illness, lack of resources prolong homelessness

If you walk through the streets of downtown Madison, you may walk past or interact with homeless or disadvantaged individuals. While there are local groups like Porchlight and the Beacon focused on helping the homeless receive basic needs like food and shelter, there is a significant deficiency in mental health resources for those without permanent residencies.

There are over 800 homeless people in Madison, according to a 2015 “point-in-time” survey taken twice a year by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. This includes a count of those living in shelters and on the street.

And, according to a study by the Treatment Advocacy Center, about one third of all homeless individuals live with serious mental health issues. These can include diseases like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and severe depression.

This means that at any point in time, there are 267 individuals in Madison with serious mental health conditions and no means of access to help.

Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney said he wished Madison had a closer psychiatric hospital, as the closest mental health institute is at least a two-hour drive away in Oshkosh.

“It can take an entire shift or even 12 hours to get an individual care once law enforcement is summoned,” said Mahoney.

Mendota Mental Health Institute, which was the only nearby location, was recently closed to the public in 2014 to exclusively house men convicted of crimes.

Miramont Behavioral Health recently broke ground in Middleton for a new psychiatric ward, but for now, there are limited options for homeless resources and emergency services.

Living without a permanent residence can be a temporary situation, but for some it can be increasingly difficult to emerge from if the individual is also managing mental health issues.

Psychotic individuals are more likely to be assaulted or threatened while homeless, and frequent visits to emergency rooms for mental health needs introduces an increased cost to taxpayers.

A 2001 University of Pennsylvania study found that homeless people with mental illnesses in New York City cost taxpayers an average of $41,000 for emergency room and heightened shelter costs.

For some homeless individuals, their mental health challenges can be what prevents them from getting out of homelessness, according to Marrika Rodgers.

Rodgers is a psychologist specializing in mental disorders in the city of Milwaukee. She works to provide counseling to families and to find shelters suitable for individuals with various mental health challenges.

Milwaukee has seen a fluctuating homeless population in recent years, sitting near 1,500 according to data collected in 2016. An increase in public housing has helped reduced the number of homeless in Milwaukee recently, though non-permanent solutions pose issues for those with mental health challenges.

Gregory Richmond, a homeless individual living in Milwaukee, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel its difficult to manage his post-traumatic stress disorder. A Marine Corps veteran, Richmond acquired the disorder while in the service and has been unable to attain resources to help.

“I have the same rights to success as anyone else,” Richmond said. “I’m just a human being.”

In a recent meeting with the UW chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Rodgers added that many of her clients suffer from repeated trauma from earlier in their life. Domestic abuse remains an issue for many of the young individuals she speaks with, and it can be a leading cause of separated families.

“We all have a story about what brought us to this point in our lives,” said Rodgers. “The next time you encounter someone homeless, remember that they have a story, too.”

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