Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
November 30, 2009
Mental illness is fast track to living on the street
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
I have had schizophrenia for 17 years and during this time, I have had the constant overshadowing fear of becoming homeless as so many of my fellow sufferers have.
Before I had my psychotic break, I was a typical grad student, living in flophouses and sometimes worse. After becoming ill, I was temporarily unable to take care of myself even if I was too sick at the time to realize it.
Now I understand how easily I might have ended up on the streets without the family support and adequate medical care I received. Those without similar resources can silently fall into a downward spiral that eventually leads to homelessness.
It is said that between 35 and 75 per cent of those that are homeless in Edmonton, approximately 3,000 persons, have a serious mental illness including many with schizophrenia.
We walk by them everyday. That dishevelled man or woman pushing a shopping cart may not be homeless due to a lack of housing. Lack of affordable housing certainly adds to the problem, but it is not the main problem.
The main problem is a treatable medical condition. For whatever reason, they are not receiving those psychological services and treatments that could allow them to stabilize enough to maintain permanent housing.
Whenever I see someone exhibiting signs of a mental illness living behind a dumpster in some alley, I feel guilty. I feel guilty for the stable, happy and safe life I live.
I also feel guilty that I have been thus far unsuccessful in bringing to fruition plans to establish Champion's Centre here in Edmonton. I chair the Edmonton committee for this Christian charity devoted to housing homeless and those at risk of being homeless.
We ran into high building costs during the boom, and lack of funding or desire since the economic crisis started. No one wants a homeless shelter for the mentally ill in their neighbourhood.
I suppose I have what is known as survivor's guilt. Standing in my warm condo looking out the window, I often see homeless individuals shuffle down the alley to their lonely destiny.
I remember once last winter seeing one of our regulars, a man on crutches because he has lost a leg, lying motionless behind a church dumpster. I was afraid he had died in the night. He was just asleep (and quite unhappy that we woke him up). But what about the next time?
A FAMILY SOMEWHERE?
I wondered if he had a mental illness like mine or perhaps an addiction. I wish that he had been open to us helping him. I wonder if he has family somewhere that worries about him.
In our neighbourhood, poverty, and the problems that go hand and hand with it, are closer to the surface and visible everywhere. In the suburbs, there can be similar problems, but affluence keeps them hidden.
In the Middle Ages there were "ships of fools" sent up and down the Rhine to rid communities of those who were mad and/or destitute. There are communities in North America that give one-way bus tickets to the homeless. We are too civilized for such things. We simply let them live in our back alley ghettos.
I do not know what tomorrow holds. The time may come when I slowly or quickly slide into madness and end up on the street. One never knows the future.
Whenever I pass by someone living on the street, I don't just ignore them. I look them in the eye and say "hello," knowing that there but for the grace of God go I.
(Austin Mardon received the Order of Canada in 2007 for his advocacy on behalf of persons with schizophrenia. In 1988 he received the U.S. Antarctic Service Medal for his work in Antarctica in the field near the South Pole searching for meteorites. He is the chair of the Champion's Centre. firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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