Thursday, 09 May 2024 12:11

The Interconnected Dynamics of Mental Illness, Homelessness, & Housing: A Focus on Saratoga County, New York

By Brian Dougherty, OES Program Supervisor, CRPA-P | Editorials

The Saratoga County Alliance to End Homelessness is a collaborative effort that works tirelessly to help those who are experiencing homelessness in our community.  RISE Housing and Support Services is proud to be a part of this effort to assist the people we work with. Through my work at RISE, I have had the opportunity to work closely with individuals who struggle with mental illness and street homelessness daily. The challenges of accessing permanent housing and healthcare are real and often complicated to navigate.

The Alliance to End Homelessness has put forth a collaborative effort to provide enhanced housing and support services that recognize the critical need for permanent and supportive housing to ensure that individuals and families have a stable foundation to rebuild their lives. The relationship between mental illness and homelessness is complex and multifaceted, particularly for individuals experiencing street homelessness. Raising awareness about mental illness is of utmost importance as it helps people understand and empathize with those who are struggling with mental health conditions. It encourages individuals to seek help, reduces stigma, and promotes a more supportive and inclusive society.

Individuals grappling with mental illness may find themselves on the streets due to a combination of factors, including lack of access to mental health services, inadequate support systems, socioeconomic disparities, and stigma surrounding mental illness. For those without stable housing, the challenges of managing mental health conditions are exacerbated, leading to a cycle of homelessness and further deterioration of mental well-being. The harsh realities of street life, including exposure to violence, lack of access to necessities, and substance use, take a severe toll on mental well-being. Substance use disorders frequently co-occur with mental illness, compounding the challenges these populations face. Moreover, the constant stress of survival impedes individuals’ ability to seek and engage in treatment, perpetuating a cycle of untreated mental illness and homelessness.

There are several barriers to accessing support. Navigating the complexities of mental health services while experiencing street homelessness poses significant challenges.  Limited access to healthcare facilities, lack of transportation, and bureaucratic regulations often prevent individuals from accessing the support they desperately need.  Despite these challenges, many wonderful success stories emerge every day as organizations in the Alliance to End Homelessness work together to provide services to individuals faced with homelessness, mental health challenges and substance use issues. 

One afternoon, while presenting RISE services to a group of people at a community shelter, David* (name changed to protect identity) hesitantly raised his hand and said, “I need help! Can you help me?” I instantly connected with David as he shared his story. David, who found himself homeless, was eager to find permanent housing and benefit from RISE’s services. David’s willingness to ask for help to do the necessary work was a key factor in his success story. Every day, David’s positive mindset and determination helped him transition from homelessness to a life full of hopes and dreams. David shared he has never felt comfortable asking for help before, always feeling pressure from his family and friends to present as a strong male figure who should not have to reach out for help.

 David was diagnosed with schizophrenia, PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), and an extremely debilitating anxiety disorder. Unfortunately, because David was not able to ask for help in ways that would fully support him, he did not have the effective coping mechanisms in place to support a healthy balanced life. Thus, he began using heroin as a coping strategy to alleviate the symptoms of the trauma he had experienced in his life, which worsened his mental illness and led to a substance use disorder. This made David feel isolated and prevented him from seeking necessary support.

David is currently participating in a MAT (Medication-Assisted Treatment) program that fully supports his recovery treatment plan. He attributes his success to the Harm Reductionist model of treatment, which bridges the gap between actively using heroin and being a functioning member of society. David worked with Shelter Advocates, Certified Recovery Peer Advocates (CRPAS), and his Parole Officer through our community shelter programs. The assistance provided by these professionals proved to be invaluable. David has secured permanent housing, primary health care, substance use treatment, and mental health services and is currently working on obtaining employment.   

David has found inspiration through his interactions with RISE and the supporting agencies and organizations that have helped him. As a result, he now feels motivated to continue his education and attend training to become a Certified Recovery Peer Advocate. He hopes to use his own success story to help others who have experienced similar circumstances in life as he has.

As David’s story illustrates, the relationship between mental illness and housing is complex, with each influencing the other in profound ways. Addressing the root causes of housing instability and mental health disparities is essential to promoting stability, recovery, and well-being for individuals with mental illness.  By advocating for policies and programs that increase access to affordable housing, provide comprehensive mental health care services, and combat stigma and discrimination, the Saratoga County Alliance to End Homelessness hopes to ensure that all individuals have access to safe, stable housing and the support they need to thrive.

To learn more about the collective impact of the agencies addressing homelessness in the Saratoga community visit: https://www.endhomelessnesssaratoga.org/

Brian Dougherty is a Program Supervisor and Certified Recovery Peer Advocate (CRPA-P) at RISE Housing and Support Services who actively engages with those facing homelessness in an effort to encourage connections to enhanced services.

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