Mental illness problems common among homeless
By MICHAEL LIGHTSTONE, The Chronicle Herald
Bundled up against a cold wind blowing under a grey, bare-tree sky, panhandler Gina clutched her cup of coins.
The troublesome path that led her to ask strangers for money on Spring Garden Road in Halifax was travelled with regret but resolve.
Gina said drug addiction is what led her downtown recently to beg for spare change.
Treatment for the affliction was helpful, before it was avoided. "I was on methadone for 7 ½ years," Gina, 48, said matter-of-factly. "I went off of it, which was the stupidest thing to do, and I got caught back up into it."
Though staying temporarily as a caregiver with her elderly mother, Gina said she was homeless last summer. She said the past couple of years have been rough.
"I’ve been pretty much couch surfing and staying here and there," the woman said.
Though financially destitute, unemployable and managing multiple health issues, Gina considers herself one of the luckier street people. She said she has no mental problems.
"There’s always somebody out here worse than I am," Gina said. "Always."
A survey done in metro last year showed mental health and learning challenges are ever-present in the city’s homeless population. The study, conducted in January 2009 by Community Action on Homelessness, covered 158 homeless people in six shelters and at four other metro sites.
The survey found 48 per cent of those interviewed rated their mental health as "fair to poor," said the agency’s report, Health and Homelessness in Halifax. It showed 52 per cent had a mental health diagnosis.
And it said many homeless people feel inadequately served by our health system.
The survey called on government to reduce what it called barriers to health-care access that often prevent mentally ill homeless people from getting treatment.
Max, another downtown panhandler who has struggled through substance abuse and homelessness, said he’s recently been in trouble with the law. The 36-year-old, who didn’t want his real name used, said he is a stroke survivor and expects his mental state to be brought up during an impending court appearance.
He said he’s facing assault charges and conceded he might be directed to mental health counselling if he is convicted.
"I’ll know (after) they send me in there," said Max, referring to provincial court, while holding a Tim Hortons coffee cup with about 85 cents in it.
There are an estimated 300,000 homeless people in Canada, statistics show. In November, the Mental Health Commission of Canada announced it was launching a research project looking into the best way to help homeless people with mental health issues stay off the streets. The pilot study
involves 2,285 people in five cities who are homeless and living with a mental illness.
A little over half of the participants will be given a place to live, as well as direct access to social services, CTV News has reported.
Commission chairman Michael Kirby said there are popular misconceptions about homeless people with mental illnesses.
"The reality is that people living on the street come from all kinds of economic backgrounds. It’s not simply that they started off at the bottom and stayed there," he told CTV.
The Halifax survey done last year recommended Canadian decision-makers "address the poverty that underlies homelessness." It said the minimum wage in this province should be boosted to $12.48 an hour from $8.60. (The Dexter government intends to raise it to $9.20 on April 1.)
Another recommendation pointed to the poor quality of life experienced by folks living on the street or in shelters, a situation made worse if a homeless person is coping with mental illness.
"Not all shelters provide enough support for people with physical and mental health conditions or substance use issues," the survey said.
In 2006, a study on homelessness and eviction from rental units in metro Halifax, Ottawa and Vancouver said people with mental health issues "were strongly represented." One tenant in Halifax, the federally funded study said, didn’t know what to do after beign evicted. That renter knew one thing, though — undisclosed emotional problems were at play before the eviction happened.
Back on windswept Spring Garden Road, Gina politely thanks a donor as other pedestrians pretend she isn’t standing there.
"I managed to keep my mind through all this, believe it or not," the woman said with a chuckle, of a hard life made easier by what she said is good mental health.