Homelessness, Mental Illness, and Addiction: Strengthening the Safety Net
Dr. David Prescott – Acadia Hospital
Why Homelessness? Many of our Health Watch segments are designed to help people recognize mental health and addiction problems in themselves, their family, and their friends. The goal is to help people understand the signs and symptoms of diagnosable problems and to find appropriate treatment. However, it is also important to recognize that a number of people in our communities face a troubling combination of problems that make everyday existence a challenge. With winter approaching and economic conditions falling, the problem of homelessness, particularly for people with mental illness and addiction, requires our attention and support.
Are Most Homeless People Mentally Ill? Statistically speaking, the majority of people who are homeless are not mentally ill. About one-in-four to one-in-five (20-25%) of homeless persons have a diagnosable mental illness. However, people with mental illness are disproportionally represented among the homeless.
Does Mental Illness Cause People to become Homeless? It is important to point out that the relationship between homelessness and mental illness is complex. It does not appear that the movement to treat people with major mental illness in the community (the deinstitutionalization movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s) corresponded to an increase in homelessness (which was seen in the 1980’s). Yet, it is undeniable that for some people, the symptoms of mental illness make it difficult to maintain a stable place to live.
How Many Homeless People abuse Alcohol and Drugs? Remember that alcohol and drug abuse can impact both the individual with the addiction and their family. Statistics on the relationship between substance abuse and homelessness are:
- About 10% of homeless families are in a situation that involves significant drug or alcohol abuse in one family member.
- Just under 40% of single homeless people are dealing with drug or alcohol abuse.
Sadly, the majority of homeless people with addictive disorders have never received any type of drug or alcohol treatment. Estimates are that less then one-third (27%) of homeless people who struggle with drug or alcohol addiction have been in treatment.
Is Better Mental Health and Addiction Treatment the Answer to Homelessness? It is probably true that improving our ability to engage homeless people in mental health and addition treatment is part of the answer to homelessness. Newer approaches to helping this group of people are focused on reducing barriers to treatment, for example by offering immediate access to an appointment or changing payment regulations to allow treatment to be more available. However, the problem of homelessness involves a variety of solutions including affordable housing, child care, and employment opportunities.
What Needs to Be Done About Homelessness and Mental Illness Today? In the short run, the organizations in our community that provide emergency shelter need support to help people who are homeless get through the winter. A number of agencies in Bangor provide emergency shelter including:
- Bangor Area Homeless Shelter
- Shaw House (teenagers)
- The Acadia Recovery Community
These organizations need our fiscal support and volunteer support to help provide their programs throughout the year.
In the long run, recognizing that solving the problems of homelessness, mental illness, and addiction will require long term support and advocacy is crucial. While there are many worthy programs in our area, none seem more vital than those that assist people with the overwhelming complexity of putting their lives back together in a way that addresses mental illness, addiction, and homelessness at the same time.