An illustration of someone peeking through a dark hole and light pouring in.
(Inti Gonzalez)

“Mentally ill homeless”—a commonly bandied about phrase that refers to the shameful housing and economic exclusion practices of a society that does not take care of its most vulnerable. I’ve lived with a major mental illness since 1982 and have not suffered from homelessness—mostly because my family has been available to help when I was in need. But not all families are equipped to care for their offspring. Society must have mechanisms to take care of an individual who suffers from an illness that adversely affects consciousness. These diseases will prevent the rational processing, such as tracking reality, that would ordinarily allow people to take care of themselves. In the absence of sufficient societal mechanisms, we with a mental condition become vulnerable to the harshness of society, in which support is not easily available. 

People who are forced by a psychiatric condition to take mind-restricting psych medications are often not allowed to work competitively in the job market. Then, if we have a means of remaining alive, it is often through being institutionalized. And this is no way to live. If being institutionalized is not an option, then we face life on the streets. And while human beings may be soft, the streets are not soft. 

The mass media is causing the public attention to focus on the coronavirus. This has caused a lot of very important things to be neglected. The well-being of people who live with mental illness is far out of the public focus. We are suffering from being unable to have face to face meetings with counselors and medication prescribers. People with computers can communicate with counselors via online services such as Zoom, but what about those can’t get online? 

I’ve seen a lot of public focus upon the mental health of non-mentally ill persons in the public who are dealing with the extraordinary stressors created by the coronavirus. According to one M.D. psychiatrist, the non-afflicted public is getting a taste of what it is like to live with a psychiatric disorder, and the stresses are “more evened out.” 

This is what I speculate: This could lead to the public having greater empathy for people who have already lived with mental illness, or it could lead to valuable and scarce mental health resources being drained by those in the non-afflicted community. 

The cure is not worse than the disease.

In response to this dire humanitarian and social crisis, I propose unconditional housing for qualifying adults with disabling psychiatric disorders. 

It would not require massive intellect to draft legislation creating guaranteed housing for individuals who meet certain criteria. If this seems too much like a free ride, rent could be garnished from those who have some form of income. And the criteria could include a disabling psychiatric condition, and a minimum ten-year residency in California. We’ve put people into outer space, and we’ve built great monuments. Is it really rocket science to house people living with mentally illness? Newsom’s April order to house unsheltered people in hotels is a start, but we need a more permanent solution. 

If we neglect this problem for too long, people living with mental illness are likely to fall into homelessness in greater numbers. This could become one of the many sub-crises that emanate from the pandemic. 

When persons with mental illness lose their grip on accepted reality, it can cause the inability to care for one’s basic needs. This can impact health, housing, and a number of other vital needs. When people maintained on medication are unable to have in-person meetings with caregivers, it can cause a relapse of acute symptoms. 

We must remain vigilant about the vulnerability of low-income people with mental illness, in society and in our legislation. However, I have observed that whenever we try to solve a problem with making a law, it often creates unintended consequences. That’s why we need to assemble a panel of experts who can find a solution to the “homeless problem” (which is how some refer to the tragedy of homelessness). 

I must note here that the attitude of the affluent needs to be remedied. I’ve interacted with some, and they are often intolerant of low-income people. I briefly attended a small writer’s group in which the facilitator mentioned her objections to low income housing being built near where she lived. Yet this person also went out of her way to be insulting toward me and could not see past the packaging—she assumed I was an idiot. 

If the attitude of the affluent can be addressed, we might be able to make some headway toward improving conditions for those afflicted with mind altering diseases. Yet, society’s architects may be fearful of giving too much liberty to individuals who have posed a nuisance, or who might misuse their opportunity for possible guaranteed housing. Is the cure worse than the disease? 

No, the cure isn’t worse. When we see our fellow human beings wither away and die on the streets, when we see encampments in the news that appear not much better than living under a pile of trash, when we see human beings who have names—and who have potential to contribute to society, the cure isn’t worse than the disease. While it will take some work to craft a solution that will not be abused, it must be done. If it is not done, it is a stain on everyone’s soul: those who live with mental illness and those who are unsheltered as well as those who have an abundance of material wealth. 

People who live with mental illness should not have to die of homelessness, and we must put a stop to it. 

Jack Bragen is author of “Revising Behaviors that Don’t Work,” “Instructions for Dealing with Schizophrenia,” and “Jack Bragen’s 2021 Fiction Collection,” and lives in Martinez.