homelessness and mental health

i recently found out that my friend aaron zacharias wrote an article on mental health and homelessness. you can find it at heretohelp, an e-zine dedicated to mental health.

the article shows very clearly how mental health and homelessness interact. tenuous mental health, especially when coupled with adverse events such as divorce, workplace accidents, or, in aaron’s case, unemployment, can explode into a literally maddening spiral of not just mental illness but severe and alarming deterioration of all of a person’s life. homelessness is perhaps one of the most damaging consequences.

it’s interesting to juxtapose this with anti-psychiatrist psychiatrist (yes, you read this right) thomas szasz’s thoughts on homelessness. szasz argues that mental health is not a cause of homelessness per se. he also says that once a person becomes homeless, she or he will often act and think in ways that are associated with mental illness.

that is, once a person is uprooted, they can and most often will experience hopelessness, confusion, sadness, lack of motivation and can display extreme anger. that only makes sense since a lack of physical place/space and the attendant personal security is almost always accompanied with irregular and insufficient sleep and meals and increased exposure to violence, to name but a few adverse events. these alone are apt to drive a person crazy, in a very literal sense.

aaron traces this from both ends – a decrease of mental health while he was homeless, and an increase once he found a home again. here is a shortened version of his article:

i had already been through more than my share of trauma, beginning with an abusive childhood. but it wasn’t until i became homeless at the age of 42, that i developed a paralyzing sense of despair and hopelessness that led to several years of prolonged anxiety and depression.

when i was in my early 20s, i had been unable to finish my education because of financial problems and stress – guaranteeing me a lifetime of low-wage employment.

but in the 1990s, our governments began to slash social programs and restructure the economy, with disastrous effects on the lives and livelihoods of the working poor. unemployment insurance was renamed, ridiculously, employment insurance and became difficult to qualify for. getting social assistance became a humiliating nightmare.

before i knew it, i was unable to pay my rent. i had quit my job; funding cutbacks had affected my employer and they wouldn’t give me more than seven hours of work a week.

the severe economic pressure i was living under, along with unresolved issues of childhood abuse, precipitated several breakdowns. i wasn’t thinking clearly. and the cost of housing was rising much faster than most people’s incomes . . .

i ended up homeless.

i was one of the fortunate homeless – i was able to couch surf. that worked for a while, but people soon began to get sick of me. i was paying my way, but they made it clear they wanted to move on with their lives and, since i wasn’t doing this for myself, i was too much of an emotional burden for them.

i was easily victimized because of terrible self-esteem, stemming from the childhood abuse. being dependent on the kindness of others, it was like the proverbial wounded chicken getting attacked by the others in its flock.

being homeless and constantly distressed made stable employment impossible.

later on, among other places, i found a room in a shared apartment with two other people. not only were there three of us in a cramped two-bedroom apartment, but three days a week the landlord’s mother and young son were there. day and night, there were comings and goings. it didn’t feel like a healthy situation: among other things, the landlord insisted on keeping his cat’s litter box in the bathtub.

fortunately, i had been networking with judy graves, who coordinates the tenant assistance program for the city of vancouver. one day, judy asked me about my housing situation and then got me onto a number of wait-lists.

i have now been living in candela place1 for almost five years, and i’ve been employed and off social assistance for the past four and a half years. when i moved into candela place, i began seeing a psychiatrist, who for four years helped me work through my traumatic stress issues, without putting me on medications. i am now working full-time as a peer support worker with vancouver community mental health services

thanks to safe, secure and affordable housing, my life is finally in a good place – i no longer feel as though i have to squander all my energies at merely coping and surviving.

now that i’m no longer in a panic about having to survive each day, i can actually enjoy things – and with a depth of pleasure i never thought would be waiting for me at this stage of my life (i am in my early fifties). i’m still a working artist, and i’ll be travelling to costa rica this spring, where i’ll be painting murals in a bed and breakfast.

(you can find aaron zacharias’s paintings here).

(you can find this article posted in the surfers’ paradise blog carnival. that’s web surfers, not wave surfers. and no, i don’t look like that lady standing right over my post 🙂 )


  1. If it weren’t for my best friend Cricket, I would be homeless or dead right now. My untreated mental illness had spiraled so far down, that a decade ago doctors told her that in cases like mine there was no hope.

    She took care of me. She took me to hospitals, knowing I might stay up to three months, but hoping it could help. She tried to stop the ECT that I agreed to when I was suicidal. She took care of my disintegrating life and mind.

    She housed me, as I was unable to work. She watched the same movies time and again, until my damaged mind began to that I’d seen it. As I cannot recall 2000-2003, I rely on her for what was my story then.

    My family? Not so much.

    I think that your post cannot be shown too often. I know in Philadelphia, there has been a slight shift toward ill homeless people. It used to be that you had to get clean and sober before being able to apply for housing. That is patently absurd! People with homes, jobs, relationships and resources often can’t get sober.

    So now, people can get housing, so that they have a haven, as they begin their journey of healing. Many addictions are symptomatic of mental health issues. I certainly used drugs and alcohol for decades before I got help.

    Sorry to go on so, I’m just excited about the topic!

    Dano MacNammarah’s last blog post..Palin’s Pastor; The Witch-Hunter.

  2. and dano, i’m excited that you “go on so” and are excited!

    we have a municipal election upon us here in vancouver. homelessness is pretty much our number 1 topic, and i’m grateful that there are people who dream the dream that homelessness can become history. of all the big, big problems that face us, at least theoretically, homelessness is a problem with obvious solutions. i hope and pray that we will put them into place.

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