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Last January, while walking through a New York City train station reading the overhead signs, I almost tripped over a shabbily dressed man lying on the floor. Later, a pregnant woman approached me for money to feed her and her baby. These were just two of many homeless people hanging around the station that bitter day to stay warm.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, half of chronically homeless people have mental illness, substance abuse problems, or both. Doesn't it make sense that if we addressed these problems better, their numbers would shrink?
In the 1960s, my family lived near a large long-term mental health facility. Neighborhood children concocted stories about activities behind the dark stone walls and told of "inmates" escaping and preying on children. When I was a bit older, the facility closed as laws and attitudes about locking up people with mental illness changed. I remember people saying that the residents would fare better taking newer medications on the "outside," but many much-needed supports and services never materialized. While people with mental illness gained "freedom," homelessness grew.
Today, some political bigwigs believe that programs for people with mental illness and drug addiction should be limited, that "they should pull their own weight." I'm all for a strong work ethic, but I don't understand how these politicos can expect dirt-poor people with enormous social problems to get education and treatment when so few options are available.
A few American presidents in my lifetime have spearheaded programs to help the homeless and people with serious mental illness. Unfortunately, the programs foundered, either because they didn't get enough funding or because subsequent presidential administrations cut them.
If the lack of resources for the homeless and mentally ill bothers you as much as it bothers me, please investigate how your community, state, and nation respond to these issues. Volunteer at a homeless shelter or do Internet research. (I've listed some useful Web sites below.) Learn about upcoming legislation on mental health funding, which politicians support it, and how you can make your voice heard in upcoming elections.
Whether you want to advocate for the less fortunate or simply be a better-educated citizen, do your homework and vote accordingly. You can make a big difference to someone who calls a train station home.
Cheryl L. Mee
National Alliance to End Homelessness: http://www.endhomelessness.org
National Coalition for the Homeless: http://www.nationalhomeless.org
National Resource Center on Homelessness and Mental Illness: http://www.nrchmi.samhsa.gov
Last accessed on March 1, 2004.
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