Homelessness: Mental Illness a Cause and Result

NEW YORK – Amy Flanagan understands how trauma can wrench a life out of orbit and send it careening down unimagined backroads and alleys. Flanagan, 41, said she has been homeless “off and on” for the past 23 years after she suffered the twin agonies of losing her 2-year-old child in a house fire and, shortly after, the death of her brother.

“That was all in a two-year span and it was just too much,” she said. “Going through the death of my son was the hardest experience I’ve ever had to go through, so being homeless is like kiddie play beside the death of a child.”

Flanagan said many of the homeless she’s encountered in New Bern, North Carolina, have similar stories of physical and mental trauma experienced at an early age.

“I completely lost it mentally when I lost my son. He passed away two days after Christmas. I became a drug addict for over a year and a half, had three kids while being on drugs but also trying to not use while being pregnant,” she admitted. “I went down a really deep, dark path.”

According to a 2015 assessment by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a minimum of 250,000, or 45% of those experiencing homelessness, suffered from some form of mental illness or chronic substance abuse issue, while an estimated 25% were seriously mentally ill. The HUD study found that affective disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders and substance abuse are among the most common types of mental health issues in the homeless population.

According to a 2020 report by “Psychiatric Times,” homeless people with mental illness are also highly vulnerable to violence.

“Psychiatric care may include prescribed psychotropics that affect alertness and pose a danger for someone who is at increased risk for victimization and violence,” the report states. “Furthermore, those who have a history with the legal system, reintegrating into society, parole, or strained finances may further impact their ability to acquire care.”

Research by the Ruff Institute of Global Homelessness has found that pre-existing mental health problems are amplified when individuals find themselves without shelter. The stress of experiencing homelessness may exacerbate previous mental illness and encourage anxiety, fear, depression, sleeplessness and substance use.

Flanagan said she had just been turned out of the Religious Community Services (RCS) shelter for three nights after a disagreement with another client. It was just the latest setback for Flanagan, who arrived in New Bern in August 2021 after driving 17 hours from her home state of Mississippi.

“Spur of the moment road trip. I needed a fresh start and packed everything in my car, and I hit the highway,” she said. “Wherever I landed to sleep was where I planned on staying.”

Though she got off to a rocky start at RCS, Flanagan says the experience has ultimately been positive.

“Being here this last Christmas opened my eyes. Everybody around here came together to help me get through it and I couldn’t ask for a better family,” she said. “We live together, we laugh together, we cry together, we scream together.”

According to RCS Executive Director Zeb Hough, when someone shows up at the facility with clear substance abuse or mental health issues beyond the scope of RCS’s care, they immediately contact a local medical or law enforcement agency that can provide help.

“If that means a gentleman with dementia has to spend some nights at our facility, even though we’re not equipped to handle that on a large scale; until we can get him to a place where he can be helped, then that’s what we do,” Hough said. “And that only happens because of collaborations with community partners.”

One person at a time

One of the partners RCS relies on is the New Bern Police Department. According to NBPD Chief Patrick Gallagher, when his department gets a call or encounters a homeless individual on the street, they provide them with a ride to RCS. Gallagher said the NBPD is currently partnering with RCS, New Bern Development Services, and local churches and nonprofits to create a homeless outreach team to better meet the needs of the area’s homeless population.

According to Gallagher, New Bern police officers are trained to handle individuals with mental illness, and several have been certified in crisis intervention, or CIT. He said the department’s strategies for dealing with persons with mental illness include utilizing the department’s Co-response Team, which is made up of trained civilian staff that work directly with New Bern police officers.

“We are not going to solve homelessness, but we can have an impact and it is one person at a time,” Gallagher said.

Since 2016, the New Bern Police Department issued 51 citations for charges of aggressive panhandling and solicitation. While panhandling itself is not illegal, approaching someone in a threatening manner while doing so can be grounds for arrest, Gallagher said.

Captain Marquie Morrison-Brown, who heads the department’s homeless initiative, noted that while the sight of a homeless person sleeping on a park bench may be disturbing to some residents, it is not prohibited by law.

“Every person should be treated with dignity and respect,” said Morrison-Brown. “If a violation of the law occurs or someone is clearly in need of emergency care, we recommend that police are contacted immediately to investigate.”

Gallagher noted that homelessness can affects anyone “from a 5-year-old in a car at Walmart to an individual begging for money in a large city. … The point is you have to have the conversation about the problem and continue to make changes,” Gallagher said.

Asked about her future, Flanagan said change is exactly what she has in mind. She said she is currently attending Craven Community College to study business administration and is soon moving into an apartment at Kensington Park with another RCS client. Ultimately, Flanagan said, she would like to put her education to use helping those who have faced similar struggles in life, namely by opening another local homeless shelter with the help of RCS staff.

“There’s too many homeless people without resources and even if there are resources they’re running low,” she said.

And the last thing on her to-do list?

“Open a plus-sized clothing store,” she says, grinning. “Us big girls have a hard time finding clothes at Walmart.”

RCS’s executive director echoed Flanagan’s comments about local resources being at a bare minimum. Hough said another health issue, COVID-19, has both increased the number of clients seen by RCS and reduced its essential volunteer staff. He said a county census found that in 2018, RCS assisted 64,000 people across the full range of its services. In 2021 that number jumped to 140,000.

“At the end of the day we’re a small-town organization,” Hough said. “We were never meant to have a $3 million budget, ever.”

Judy Myrick, RCS, front office coordinator, said the nonprofit lost a number of its older volunteers during the pandemic. In 2019, RCS volunteers logged over 500,000 hours. That number fell by 75% last year.

With the downturn in volunteers coinciding with a rise in demand, RCS has been forced to bring on more paid staffers.

“At one time it wasn’t anything to walk through the warehouse and see 15-20 volunteers in there working,” Myrick said.

One longtime RCS volunteer that has stayed on, John Leahy, said the homeless of Craven County are often invisible to the general public. “People don’t see homeless, they just don’t see it,” he asserted. “It’s the same situation here. It’s the same situation around the world.”

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