Combating mental illness and homelessness in DC

35 percent of homeless people in D.C. suffer from a mental illness

A man sits outside of Friendship Place, a homeless shelter in D.C., on Sept. 7.
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More than one third of homeless people in Washington, D.C., suffer from a mental illness according to the Washington Legal Clinic, making it tougher to assist them in getting back on their feet.

“The biggest challenges are definitely doing what the client wants,” said Ann Staudenmaier, a staff attorney for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.

Often, homeless people who are suffering from schizophrenia or paranoia do not want to receive government help, Staudenmaier said.

Washington, D.C., has the highest per capita rate of homelessness in the country with more than 15,000 people experiencing homelessness each year, according to the Legal Clinic.

The homeless population suffering from mental illness has increased steadily since the 1970s, according to a study done by mentalillnesspolicy.org. This is compounded by deinstitutionalization in the 1980s, which left many local communities to deal with mentally ill patients instead of the federal government.

A man walks toward his belongings outside Friendship Place on Wisconsin Avenue on Sept. 7.

“Reagan cut funding from federal facilities and psychiatric hospitals,” Jeremy Weatherly, development manager at homelessness aid organization Pathway to Housing D.C., said.

That funding cut made it tougher for mentally ill people to get the treatment they need. Instead, many ended up on the streets, in D.C. and elsewhere.

Weatherly is from Macon, Ga., and remembers when the largest public psychiatric institution there closed.

“They just put people on a bus, drove them to Macon and let them out on the street,” he said. “It made things very difficult.”

While any kind of homeless person presents a challenge, those who suffer from a mental illness can be especially difficult, according to Weatherly.

“Those who have a mental illness are definitely on the street longer,” he said. “It can be very tough to get them off.”

One of the biggest ways to help mentally ill people on the street is through legislation. Ensuring those who are mentally ill get preventative care, can greatly reduce their chance of being homeless.

“We try to change the laws to make sure people are getting help ahead of time,” Frankie Berger, director of advocacy for the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, Va., said.

Those who have a mental illness are definitely on the street longer. It can be very tough to get them off.

While some have argued that deinstitutionalization has been a good thing because it gets people out of long stays at federal institutions, Berger points out that these people often end up in hospitals anyway.

“The number of homeless people with illnesses in the Georgetown emergency room is huge,” Berger said. “It ends up being a cycle for a lot of them.”

The Treatment Advocacy Center has been successful in changing laws in over half the states because mental health funding has been one of the few issues that is bipartisan.

“The 21st Century Cures Act gave us a lot more funding,” Berger said. “Even under the current administration we will have more funding, so I see our work continuing.”

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