It’s a frigid day in New York as I step outside to check the mail. A snow storm has covered everything in glistening white, and I’m only dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans. It only takes a minute to check the mail, but I’m already freezing. I open the mailbox and there’s no mail. I’ve forgotten that it’s Martin Luther King Day. I stand on the porch for a second to look at the snow, and I notice someone that I know, walking near the river that’s across from my home.
His name is Peter, but most people call him “Mousey.” Peter is a man in his late 30s, and there isn’t much known about him, except that he suffers from schizophrenia and he’s had alcohol and drug issues. Peter is also homeless. Even though some local organizations have tried to get him some help, Peter always ended up back on the streets. They called him a “lost cause.” He often refused to take his medication regularly, and couldn’t keep a job longer than a couple of weeks.
I wave to Peter, and he looks at me. Peter knows me, and I’ve given him some clothes and food in the past, but he gives me a blank look as he walks on. Peter and others like him are the invisibles of New York and cities across the U.S. They are often ignored, battered, abused and sometimes even murdered. They’re disposable, unwanted. I’ve come across many people who blame homeless people with mental illness and homeless people for being on the street, or label them as just drug addicts that deserve the cold pavement that serves as their beds, their home.
The fact is that many Americans are one paycheck away from poverty and homelessness. The numbers have only grown during the pandemic. Although governmental policies have temporarily slowed or halted evictions in many places, many individuals and families are still at risk of homelessness, or have already found themselves on the streets with no place to go. Very few people are recovering financially after the financial crisis brought on by COVID-19, and many families and individuals will be impacted, not just financially, but their mental health will suffer greatly. For some, they may not recover from this trauma for years.
For some people, homeless people and their experiences may seem the same, however, this couldn’t be further from the truth. A substantial number of the homeless struggle with mental illness. Some only need help accessing resources, including mental health services, to reach a stable housing and financial situation. While for others, the need is much more, as their mental state has deteriorated over the years.
For someone like Peter, a.k.a “Mousey,” it’s not just a matter of accessing services, but it’s also about steady monitoring and a medication plan. Peter has a familiar story. He was an abused child who ended up in and out of the foster care system where he eventually fell through the cracks, never had solid help for his schizophrenia and eventually found himself homeless on the streets of New York.
We live in a society where mental illness is still stigmatized, and those suffering from it are marginalized. Many still believe that homelessness causes mental illness, which isn’t true. Although many of the homeless are suffering from some form of mental illness, the majority of people with mental health issues are not homeless.
Those who suffer from housing insecurity are struggling significantly, both psychologically and emotionally. Most of the homeless mothers living in shelters have suffered sexual abuse and domestic violence in their lifetime.
Mothers who are homeless have three times the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder and twice the rate of drug and alcohol dependence of their low-income housed counterparts. These stressors can further damage their mental health by causing them to acquire counterproductive habits to cope with their past and their lives, and make the way for more future trauma. Housing and employment are goals that many of the homeless find extremely hard to find and maintain.
Homeless individuals face many barriers to finding stable or permanent employment. Most organizations that provide employment help assist individuals with only their most immediate employment needs — for example, how to prepare a resume. These services often don’t address the underlying problems that many of the homeless face. Issues, such as loneliness, social exclusion and existing psychological problems, will ultimately keep a homeless individual from escaping the streets, or even setting a goal for their life.
For someone like Peter who is suffering from a very debilitating mental illness, the future looks very bleak. Without a personalized organizational intervention, he’ll continue the cycle of drug abuse, homelessness and institutionalization. His life will probably end before its time, and he’ll be forgotten like so many others like him.
I don’t have the answers to this very complicated social issue, and I doubt that many of us do. However, I believe that it all comes down to first recognizing the issue and understanding that although housing and employment are important to leaving the streets, there are many facets to the plight of unhoused people, and we need programs that are just as multifaceted as the problem at hand. In the end, Peter and so many others deserve more than the dehumanizing streets.
Johanna Elattar is a writer in New York. Readings of her poetry and fiction can be found on her YouTube channel Rotten on the Vine.