California’s mentally ill homeless need place of their own to heal

LOS ANGELES (AFP) – Rocky was 56 years when she found herself living on the streets for the first time in her life, penniless and hungry, feeling that the rest of the world had left her behind.

She quickly slid into a deep depression, a mental state common among people experiencing such a traumatic change in their lives.

At that time, three years ago, her fragile psyche sapped her energy as she sought a place to pitch her tent in a park in Los Angeles county, which has the highest rate of homelessness in the United States (US).

The county has about 53,000 homeless residents, 27 per cent of whom suffer from some kind of mental illness, be it schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or severe depression like Rocky’s.

“It hasn’t been easy,” said Rocky, now 59, her hair graying and wrinkles forming on her face.

Rocky talks about her situation as she unlocks her bike at her campsite in a public park in the Van Nuys neighbourhood in the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles
Eric Montoya (L), an outreach coordinator from LA Family Housing, visits a homeless man living in an encampment in a public park in the Van Nuys neighbourhood. – PHOTOS: AFP
Staci Diner and Eric Montoya visit a homeless encampment in a public park in the Van Nuys neighbourhood

“Never been homeless before,” she added, almost whispering the word out of shame.

Rocky is the name she adopted when she hit the streets.

She has forgotten what it is like to have a truly good night’s rest: she sleeps with a camping lantern that lights up at the least sound, and said she carries a firearm that she uses to scare off anyone who tries to rob or attack her in the night.

“Living out on the street, you know, is a stressful situation that can in and of itself exacerbate a mental health condition or symptoms of mental illness,” said Benjamin Henwood, a social worker who carries out research for the University of Southern California.

California boasts the fifth-largest economy in the world, but has the highest poverty rate in the United States, if the cost of living is taken into account.

There is no part of Los Angeles that doesn’t have its own homeless community: from the tourist-filled Hollywood Walk of Fame to the city centre, there are pockets of down-and-outs clustered in squares, parks and along highways.

Dirty and dressed in rags, they can often be seen talking to themselves, screaming or swaying to and fro – all things that experts say indicate a mental condition or possibly drug abuse.

Experts agree that the first step towards addressing mental illness among the homeless is simply finding them a place to live.

“Housing should be the foundation for recovery, not the culmination of recovery,” said Todd Lipka, head of the NGO Step by Step, which helps homeless people with mental illness find places to live.

“If you have a mental illness, recovery in the street is almost impossible because you’re spending all your energy simply surviving,” he said.

Other groups such as LA Family Housing – which services the area where Rocky lives – also look for apartments for people on the street in an area that has sky-high costs of living. “We need more permanent supportive housing to be built and we need it now,” said Eric Montoya, an outreach coordinator with LA Family Housing who is looking for a place for Rocky.

Both LA county and the city itself are passing measures to spend billions of dollars on building social housing, but the projects have not been completed yet. The legislative measures also aim to improve social services that are currently overwhelmed.