Home Haven

How Madison is facing up to the homeless and mentally ill

The proposed renovation of the Central Library (a hangout for the homeless) as well as the United Way’s Delegation to Improve Behavioral Health (which will meet throughout 2010) have shed light on a chronic issue in Madison: homelessness and mental illness. Here are the facts.

The Background

With warmer weather approaching you might notice more of the city’s homeless population. Steve Schooler, executive director of Porchlight, which provides emergency shelter, food, employment services, counseling, and affordable transitional and permanent housing to homeless people in the Dane County area, says about half of the city’s adult homeless population suffers from serious mental illness—schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major clinical depression. Schooler also sees a looming uptick in another problem: returning veterans with post- traumatic stress disorder.

Why do those with mental illness struggle with homelessness, too? Schooler points to the “de-institutionalizing” of those with mental illness—15,000 people in 1955 were institutionalized versus just 700 people in 2007. “We as a society and state do not provide those [with mental illness] with treatment services, housing opportunities and ... support services. So where would you expect [them] to end up? On the streets. We trip over them in the jails or in detox, where they cost us a lot of money.”

Nan Cnare, vice president of community impact at United Way, adds that being homeless can exacerbate mental illness. “Mental illness exists in all populations, but [for] people under the trauma of homelessness it can either be a cause or effect on some level. Certainly the low-income population has less access to treatment because they’re often uninsured.”

Cnare does want to clear up one misperception about the homeless: that they’re a nuisance. She and Lt. Joe Balles of the Madison Police Department studied that exact issue. They found that only 51 of 814 men in the shelter system had frequent contacts with police (or 6.3 percent) and that of the sixty-six most chronic offenders (five or more contacts with police) half were homeless. But, those sixty-six cost taxpayers $3.3 million across all systems.

What to Do

Cnare and Schooler say affordable housing and professional case management to treat mental illness is the best solution for both issues.

“If you can do this you can be successful with maintaining these people in the community,” says Schooler.

The United Way’s Delegation to Improve Behavioral Health is studying the issue to work up realistic solutions. A recent coup? The implementation of a release of information form (signed by those seeking help) that allows the sharing of information across service entities.

“This coordinates efforts for those seeking assistance,” says Cnare. “It’s a fine collaboration of the health and social services system.”

Quick Read: Mark it Down

Want to learn more about homelessness and mental illness? Porchlight’s Madison Cares Campaign has launched with several community book discussions and a garden party in June to educate the public on the issues.

The Madison Public Library joined forces with Porchlight to encourage people to read the book The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship (also released as a movie starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr.). The story is about “the bond between a journalist and a mentally ill, homeless, classically trained musician in Los Angeles.” There are two discussions this month (May 14, 25; details at madisonpubliclibrary.org) and more in June and July.

Porchlight’s Garden Party on June 27 will celebrate supporters of the Madison Cares campaign—which is raising money for a new, improved Safe Haven facility. Enjoy live music and food by Lombardino’s and The Haze. Go to porchlightinc.org/upcoming_events.html.

Shayna Miller is associate editor of Madison Magazine.

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