Addressing homelessness through mental health care

Like many people, my views on homelessness have changed over the years. Growing up, seeing homeless people caused sadness and disbelief. As I became older, I came to see homeless people as lazy individuals who were unwilling to work for a living. It has taken much reflection and personal experience for me to realize those views were both ignorant and ill-informed. Homelessness is not black and white; it’s a complex issue that many people fail to understand.

My first personal encounter with homelessness was when I was 17 years old. My brother was in his early 20s and had just dropped out of college due to his struggles with mental illness (he was later diagnosed with schizophrenia). At first, he moved in with my older brother, but after a short time, he decided to leave.

After several months of searching for my brother, we received a call from him. We later found out that he had been hitchhiking and living on the streets all the way from Washington to Mexico City. It was at this exact moment that my entire perception changed regarding the homeless population. According to a 2015 assessment by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “Of the 564,708 people homeless on a given night, 25% of these people were seriously mentally ill and 45% has some level of mental illness.” Almost half of the homeless people you see on the street currently suffer from some sort of mental illness.

The statistics are sad and breathtaking. There seemed to be little hope for my brother. Time and time again, my family tried to get him help, only for him to relapse again and again. I came to appreciate just how hard it can be to live with a mental illness, to find services that help – and all the barriers to getting and keeping a job. It is not just laziness.

Eventually, my mom discovered Alaska Behavioral Health (formerly Anchorage Community Mental Health Services). They provide comprehensive outpatient treatment services for adults experiencing mild, moderate and severe mental illness. They’ve recently added intensive case management teams and residential services, specifically to reach clients who need more support and may have struggled with homelessness. It was through this organization that my brother was able to get back on his feet.

But the sad reality is many homeless people do not get the necessary help they need. Many will continue to wander the streets in search of something that may not be there. As a community, we must be willing to provide the support necessary to combat mental illness, to support the organizations that provide services and can help them with getting their lives back on track. It does sometimes feel overwhelming, but energy and persistence conquer all things.

Christopher Cox is a Project Manager at GCI, a lifelong Alaskan and is on the board of Alaska Behavioral Health.

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