Unsheltered and mental health issues are often related

The following editorial was published in The Daily Sun on Nov 21, 2023.

OUR POSITION: Our unsheltered population deals with a much-larger than normal amount of mental health issues and the problem needs to be addressed.

The mental and behavioral health crises confronting our communities throughout Florida, as well as nationally, is no more pronounced than with our neighbors who are homeless.

Rates of mental and behavioral health challenges are higher among the unsheltered than the general population, according to multiple studies and reports.

An estimated one-third of the U.S. homeless population deals with schizophrenia disorders — one of the most challenging of mental health conditions. That compares to 1.8% of the general population.

Forty-two percent of the homeless have some kind of bipolar disorder compared to 4.4 % of the broader population.

Close to half of America’s unsheltered deal with mental health issues versus 21% of the general population.

Homeless people also have more than double the rates of substance abuse as the general population, according to numbers from the American Addiction Centers and the latest installment in Adams Publishing Group’s series “Mental Health in America.”

These numbers should be a call to action locally, statewide and nationally.

The unsheltered folks in our communities — including here in Florida — are also some of the least likely to get help and assistance.

Mental and behavioral health coverage for those of us with private health coverage is still a fairly recent phenomena. It’s still an uphill climb for those on Medicaid and other public assistance. It’s even a tougher climb for folks in our communities without insurance or other resources.

Changing that dynamic is going to take more than the usual bureaucracies, grant programs and good intentions.

Homeless folks don’t actually have a lot of sway in America’s private health care systems. Nor do they have a lot of influential lobbyists in state capitols or city halls.

There’s also plenty of hesitancies among the unsheltered about accessing mental and behavioral health services.

There are similar skepticisms toward those systems from lower-income and minority communities — such as African Americans and Native Americans who have faced historical and contemporary mistreatment and make up disproportionate shares of homeless populations.

There are still worries about stigmas and institutionalization.

Historically, we are not that far removed from the days of asylums, shock therapy and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

So what’s to be done? Those on the frontlines helping homeless folks need to be better linked with mental and behavioral providers that are actually helping our neighbors in need.

Right now, shelters, housing providers, employment resources, food banks and mental-behavioral health groups are often siloed in their help for the homeless.

Some of that is based on resources and bandwidth. Some of it is based on funding streams for nonprofits that keep housing groups in a housing lane and mental health providers on their own path.

We need to find more proactive and whole cloth ways to help the most vulnerable — before they are on the street.

We need to find best practices locally, regionally and nationally that work better with churches and other houses of worship who are often at the forefront of helping the unsheltered.

Helping the homeless and those in need is in the forefront for Thanksgiving and Christmas. That’s a good thing and part of the real spirit of the season.

But we need to take that spirit year-round and find better and more early stage ways to help fellow Floridians and fellow Americans in the most need — sometimes the most dire straits.

 Image Credits: Texas Public Radio