For Individuals Experiencing Mental Illness & Homelessness, VSH Brings Stability & Security

Posted on June 21, 2011

This blog was written by VSH’s summer PR intern, James Denison.

According to a 2009 study from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 20-25% of America’s homeless population suffers from some sort of severe mental illness. That means one out of every four homeless individuals is struggling with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or another paralyzing mental instability. Statistically speaking, one out of every four homeless persons may be hearing voices, having hallucinations, or suffering from mood swings.

For some of these individuals, their mental illness is severe enough to warrant a temporary detention order to a psychiatric hospital. Because of the “danger of imminent harm to themselves or others”, they could legally be committed for inpatient treatment. Yet all over Virginia, psychiatric hospitals are turning hundreds of patients away each year, simply because they don’t have room for them. If they don’t have family to stay with, these individuals end up trying to fend for themselves on the streets. Without the care and treatment they need, they exist in constant danger of harming themselves or being victimized by others.

How did things end up this way? Mental institutes are downsizing, but that is not the heart of the problem. Smaller, community-based facilities were supposed to pick up the slack as a more humane way to treat patients with mental illness. However, that hasn’t happened, and persons with mental illness are paying the price. At Virginia Supportive Housing, though, we’re striving to ensure that individuals experiencing homelessness are properly cared for before they reach a point where they need to be committed.

At VSH, we believe it is unacceptable for anyone to be homeless, especially someone suffering from mental illness. Our program, A Place To Start, provides stable housing and comprehensive mental health services to chronically homeless individuals in the Richmond area. Thanks to a committed team of clinicians, case managers, a nurse, and a psychiatrist, APTS has housed 62 clients since December 2007. All but one of APTS’s clients have not returned to homelessness.

APTS has shown how compassion, empathy, and determination can bring people off the streets and save Richmond money to boot. In addition, the greatest benefit of APTS comes from watching our clients move from instability and fear to security and peace. As our psychiatrist Jeannette Schoonmaker put it in last week’s blog: “The thing that makes my day is when I’ve seen people come into the program who are really desperately depressed, hopeless, and don’t know where to turn. And in a few months, I can ask them how they’re doing, and they say, ‘I’m happy. Life is good.’ That’s flat-out amazing.”

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