The Mental Health Minute

Articles and news about mental health issues

Getting to know the homeless

I can’t speak for every other part of the country, but as a travel nurse and now as a permanent staff nurse in Austin, TX, I find that the number of homeless people seems to have increased by very large numbers.

Here in Austin, you cannot drive past an intersection without seeing a group of homeless men and women, some panhandling, some simply sitting and staring off into space.  When I was in California, the problem of homelessness was extreme.  You could not walk down the street of town without stepping over someone lying on the concrete.

This is a growing problem in our country and whether due to the economic downturn, mental illness without treatment, drug addiction, or simply lack of planning and ability–we need to address this issue.  The people you see living out on the street are no different from you and me in that they have physical needs and emotional needs and somewhere along the line those needs were not or could not be met.  This could happen to just about anyone at anytime.  Granted I don’t see us all becoming homeless and living on the street, but without any connections or the ability to find help we could end up that way.

What are we willing to do to end this type of situation?  What do you think needs to be done?  Where have we gone wrong?  I have no answers, only many more questions.


According to a new survey, the homeless want friends, family, security and stability.

By Andrea Ball


Jim Briggs missed a lot of things when he was homeless.

The Austin man, 57, craved the stability of his own house. He wanted a place to relax, to escape the heat and feel safe from the violence he saw on the street. But that was gone. And Briggs didn’t know how to get it back.

“I felt like this one-man island was sinking fast,” he said.

A new study about Austin’s homeless population is devoted to getting to know people like Briggs.

Many surveys of homeless people focus on demographics such as age, sex, income, medical problems or housing issues. But a recent study by Seeds For Change Consulting, a business that provides services for nonprofits, takes a different tack. While the report does delve into the basics, Seeds for Change also surveyed more than 200 homeless people in Austin about personal issues, such as their desires, their perceptions of themselves and their hopes for the future.

The report was commissioned by Mobile Loaves and Fishes, an Austin charity that uses trucks to feed homeless people across the city.

In the survey, respondents’ biggest fears about living on the streets ranged from personal safety to lack of health care to the lure of drugs and alcohol. Others said they worried about finding a place to sleep or being robbed.

One question, “What is the one thing you wish people knew about you,” drew a variety of responses, including: “That I am a poet, musician and songwriter,” “I’m smart and talented,” “That I play chess,” “I have a good heart,” and “I’m not a scary, mean person.”

“I wanted to ask these guys questions that meant something,” said Alan Graham, president of Mobile Loaves and Fishes. “The problem with the (homeless services) industry is that it’s so donor-centric. We’re trying to Harvardize it with a bunch of intellectuals who decide what is needed with this population.”

The report comes at a time when the homeless advocacy community is buzzing with activity. Advocates are trying to determine how to spend the remaining $13 million from $55 million in housing bonds passed by Austin voters in 2006. Meanwhile, city and nonprofit leaders are trying to figure out ways to count as many homeless people as possible in the upcoming census. That number directly affects how much money the federal government returns to the region.

But Graham said efforts to help homeless people often fall short because advocates don’t always consider what their clients want.

“We’re always trying to put them in our box,” he said. “The purpose of this study was to ask, ‘What do you want to be?’

For the report, surveyors conducted face-to-face interviews with 221 homeless people. Of those, 83.9 percent were male. About 56 percent said they spent their childhoods in Austin or other Texas cities. Almost half had a felony record for offenses such as drug possession, burglary and forgery.

Those who took the survey listed a variety of reasons for their homelessness. More than 30 percent identified job loss or unemployment as the main cause, while another 19 percent pointed to drug or alcohol addiction. Other reasons cited included Hurricane Katrina, domestic abuse and poor health.

The survey — which took about 15 minutes and took place at local shelters, street corners and local parks — was illuminating to Stacy Ehrlich, owner of Seeds for Change.

“I think I had a vision of who I was going to be interviewing, and a lot of my stereotypical, urban legend sort of ideas immediately melted away,” Ehrlich said. “You realize that one year, three years, five years ago, a lot of these people were just like us.”

Survey respondents talked about where they see themselves in the next six to 12 months. More than 65 percent envisioned themselves living in a house or apartment; nearly 27 percent guessed they would have a job. Other responses included “Only God knows,” “Either not homeless or dead,” and “In heaven.”

Briggs — who was homeless for 15 months and has lived in public housing since May 2009 — said he sometimes felt shunned during his time on the streets. Restaurants and businesses turned him away, police shooed him away from public places and he felt like people judged him, he said.

“You really do get sensitive to the way people look at you,” he said. “If you let it bother you, it can drive you to rage or desperation.”

Briggs, who has knee problems and some back pain, got into public housing after working with the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless to get his Social Security disability insurance. He now has his own apartment and serves on the board of Front Steps, the nonprofit that runs the resource group. Being an advocate for the homeless is his way of giving back, he said.

“People are so afraid to think about what happens to homeless people that they don’t want to hear anything about it,” Briggs said. “They’re afraid it’s an infectious disease and they’re going to catch it.”

The entire report will be presented Wednesday at St. Edward’s University during a symposium on homelessness. The study will be posted at the same day.; 912-2506

Here’s the link to the original article

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April 11, 2010 - Posted by | Mental Health | , , , , ,


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