What You Need to Know
It is estimated that about 18,000 people experience homelessness in Alameda County each year. According to the Alameda Countywide Shelter and Services Survey, 49.2% of those who are unhoused live in Oakland. Furthermore, homelessness has doubled in the last ten years in Oakland.
Someone is considered homeless if one lives:
- In places that are not meant for residence (e.g. Cars, streets, public parks)
- Emergency shelter, transitional housing, motels, or hotels
- A temporary, changeable arrangement with others
- After being discharged from an institution (e.g. prison, hospital, mental health facility) with no resources to access housing
People can become unhoused because of many things such as:
- Poverty and lack of affordable housing
- My county is in the top 10 least affordable housing markets in the United States. There has been a recent economic downturn and mortgage crisis which is pushing more people to the brink of homelessness.
- Sudden loss of income
- E.g. layoffs, divorce, disability, and the current Covid-19 pandemic
- Adverse life events, family violence, mental illness, physical illness, and addiction, and lack of support after the foster care system put someone at great risk of experiencing homelessness
In the past, both governmental policies and societal attitudes strip those experiencing homelessness of their humanity. Recently, there have been programs and initiatives that seek to restore human dignity. For example, many people are using the term “unhoused” as opposed to “homeless” because it does not reduce a person just to their housing situation.
However, one specific unhoused community that is overlooked is those with mental illness.
- ~4,000 of the 16,000 identified as unhoused have mental health issues or addiction
That said, this issue is nuanced. Mental illness is actually constantly conflated with homelessness, which again is dehumanizing. Despite this conflation, mental health resources often only cover the bare minimum and are not readily accessible.
A new study from the University of California, San Francisco found that often mental illness is a result of experiencing homelessness, not a cause. According to the research director of the study, Dr. Margot Kushel, almost all aspects of homelessness exacerbates mental illness. Some reported feeling:
- Anxiety due to unsafe environments
- Isolation from support networks
- Unable to access the necessary food and health care
- Sleep deprivation due to sleeping during the day or in shifts to avoid the unsafe night
All of this exacerbates existing or promotes new mental illnesses.
Mental illnesses can put someone at a risk for experiencing homelessness, specifically co-occurring disorders (COD), both severe mental illnesses and substance abuse, are more likely to be chronically unhoused and less likely to treated and recover. Severed mental illnesses and COD can increase suicide, drug abuse, victimization, criminality, and chronic homelessness. Studies have shown sufferers need mental health services in addition to housing, economic security, and social support to get out of homelessness.
So What Can We Do?
Homelessness is a systematic and deeply rooted problem, with unfortunately no easy solution. However there a couple of possible answers.
Some concrete solutions that have been proven to be successful in the past are:
- Community-based mental health services.
- Providing care that is non-threatening and supportive.
- Adequately training shelter staff.
- Making shelters cleaner and safer.
- More strategic discharge plans from psychiatric hospitals and prisons.
- Legal representation, assistance, counseling, and eviction defense, emergency financial assistance, and supportive services need to increase.
- Federal agencies need to be flexible when it comes to supporting integrative services and community practices.
- For example, mental health and substance abuse programs should integrate, or at least coordinate with one another.
Today, you can:
- Support local, state, and national affordable housing initiatives.
- Donate to homeless shelters or organizations that help unhoused people.
- Donate your time, volunteering at local organizations.
Making an impact starts with increasing awareness. On the micro-level, I think one of the most important things we can do is educate ourselves about the community around us. Find local resources or organizations in your area and read about ways to get involved. On a macro level, we need to change our mindset as a society from one of selfish individualism to a community-centered, empathetic mindset that restores humanity to those experiencing homelessness.
In the Padlet below, I have gathered some national organizations and websites that have resources for unhoused people. Read through them. Then dive deeper and look into your specific community. Post a local resource you find and tell us a little bit about why it stood out to you.
In the comment section, please give me feedback or reflect on what you found in the Padlet interactive portion.
Here are my resources consulted and cited.