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Mental Illness and Homelessness

In November 2021, after participating in a series of social justice initiatives and volunteer work, I began the small grassroots organization Mutual Aid Over Everything (formerly known as Indy Pancake Popup). While Mutual Aid Over Everything (MA/E) has taken on a variety of roles from disaster relief in tornado-stricken areas to cooking breakfast for those in need, one theme has remained throughout: providing aid to our local unhoused neighbors.

Every week, we head to a service area shared with another group called Because of Adam and provide hot food, groceries, tents, sleeping bags, harm reduction supplies, and other necessities for our unhoused friends to be more comfortable and frankly, increase their chances of survival. Unhoused individuals already have a mortality rate three times as high as their peers - we are doing everything we can to increase their odds. Unfortunately, our unhoused friends with severe mental illness have a 15% mortality rate in just 18 months.

According to a 2015 study conducted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, there are over 564,000 unhoused individuals in the USA. 25% of those individuals have a serious mental illness, while 45% have any mental illness. Around 38% have alcohol addiction, while 26% suffer from other drug addiction. These numbers do not include the “couch-surfing” homeless who live with friends and family but move frequently and have no fixed address.

Unfortunately, most unhoused individuals with mental illness do not have access to mental health care and are unhoused as a direct result of their illness. Being unhoused brings an individual into increased contact with police, which rarely ends in their favor. In an interview with NPR, Alisa Roth points out that the three largest psychiatric facilities in the US are actually prisons, wherein prison guards are expected to act as mental health providers, despite insufficient training. This lack of care in prisons combined with the increased police presence in the lives of the unhoused creates a revolving door of arrest, incarceration, and being forced back into the streets with no resources.

HUD also stated that unhoused individuals with mental health disorders and addictions were significantly more likely to be victimized by their housed peers; beaten, attacked, robbed, or injured. Those with noticeable mental illness and addiction are even considered “easy targets” for muggings and robberies by those who commit such crimes. Unhoused women are some of the most vulnerable human beings on the planet to sexual assault and rape, having a significantly higher reported instances of such events.

Sadly, we see far too many of these exact scenarios in our work through MA/E. Just for showing up to help our unhoused friends on a weekly basis, we have faced harassment, threats, and more from police and community members. While we realize being unhoused, having mental illness, or suffering from addiction are not always pleasant to look at, we also recognize that forcing them out of their encampments, sending them to prisons, mocking them, threatening them, or posting their images on social media with “funny” captions will not improve their situation and in fact, makes it worse.

No one wakes up and decides to be unhoused or addicted to drugs. To see an unhoused individual in the midst of a mental health crisis or using drugs is to see a human being at literally one of their lowest points. Literally just speaking with unhoused persons and treating them as human beings can go a long way in improving their daily lives. We humbly suggest finding ways you can assist in your own local organizations that care for the unhoused and getting involved with them.

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