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Homelessness: Much More Than a “Christmas Thing”

homeless mental illness

Homelessness is a tragedy. Sure, it’s good that it gets a lot of exposure during the holidays; however, it’s a year-round issue that deserves more than seasonal “make-me-feel-good” attention.

Two days before Christmas Day, and I pondered all sorts of things to write about. Oh, I swirled around the usual (and cliche) holiday messages; but somehow I couldn’t succumb.

So let’s talk about an awful circumstance – homelessness.

First, some stats from HUD’s July 2009 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress…

  • On a given night in January 2008,  415,202 individuals were homeless in shelters, transitional housing programs, or on the streets. 124,135 of these individuals were chronically homeless.
  • Over the course of a year (Oct ’07-Sept ’08), 1,092,600 individuals experienced homelessness. 2% were under 18, and 4% were 62 and over.
  • On a given night in January ’08, 249,212 persons in families were homeless in shelters, transitional housing programs, or on the streets.
  • Among all sheltered persons in families over the course of a year (Oct ’07-Sept ’08), 60% were under 18.
  • In 2007, researchers estimated a national prevalence of 1.6 million youth experiencing homelessness each year.
  • On a given night in January ’08,  26% of all sheltered persons who were homeless had a severe mental illness; and 37% had chronic substance abuse issues.

Among my many personal experiences with the homeless, I’d like to share two…

#1

Doing E.R. psychiatric emergency work is always an adventure. And how well I remember those overnight shifts during bitter cold and snowy Chicago winters. It wasn’t unusual for an emotionally distressed homeless man or woman to report to the E.R. So often, during the assessment, the patient would tell me he/she was experiencing suicidal ideation (S.I.). In most cases, mentioning S.I. results in an inpatient stay at a psychiatric facility, and lodging at the E.R. until a transfer and transportation can be arranged.

No doubt, some of the reports of S.I. were on the level. But I know some were conjured-up in an effort to secure, what so many insensitive medical staff members cruelly referred to as, “sheets and eats.” I can tell you there were times when I knew, and the patient knew I knew, he/she wasn’t suicidal. But, given the circumstances, let’s just say we exchanged a telepathic wink; and I began admission proceedings.

#2

Many years ago, my Mom, Dad, brother, and I worked a shift at a homeless shelter in Pontiac, Michigan – on a dangerously cold Christmas Day. About an hour into our work; my Dad, tears welling-up in his eyes, pulled me aside and choked-out a story.

Seems a man approached him shortly after arriving at the shelter, and asked him if he’d unzip his jacket for him. Naturally, my Dad did exactly that. The man thanked him, and as he did he held out his beet red hands, explaining he had no gloves – and his frozen and numb fingers just couldn’t get the job done.

I’d like to share some lyrics from John Lennon’s “Happy Christmas (War Is Over)”…

So this is Christmas, and what have you done. Another year over, and a new one just begun. And so this is Christmas, I hope you have fun. The near and the dear one, the old and the young…A very merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year. Let’s hope it’s a good one, without any fear…And so this is Christmas, for weak and for strong. For rich and the poor ones, the world is so wrong. And so happy Christmas, for black and for white. For yellow and red ones, let’s stop all the fight…

You know, the purpose of this article isn’t to encourage all of us to call the local homeless shelter to grab a Christmas Day shift. No, I’m simply reporting the facts as they exist each and every day. Homelessness relief is about awareness and action – year round.

Don’t you think?

For much more information, here’s a great place to start – Homelessness Resource Center.