The subject of mental illness is one shrouded with misconceptions and ignorance. Most people have only passing experience with the mentally ill, and then it’s usually only the most extreme examples that we see.
If we as a society are to set ourselves to the task of helping those in need, it is important that we begin the process with understanding. We have all been told since we were children that each of us is our own beautiful unique snowflake. Never is this more clear than in matters of the mind. Every person has a collection of memories, thoughts, and experience that no other person will ever fully understand. If something inside someone’s mind is holding them back, hurting them, or making them a danger to themselves or others, they might be visibly indistinguishable from someone having a bad day. The only way we would ever know what’s wrong is if they tell us, or we spend a lot of time with them.
There is a crisis in this city. There are literally thousands of people sleeping on the streets. What does this have to do with mental illness? There’s a shortage of safe places to sleep. There is a shortage of places to keep your stuff. It rains all the time. If you linger somewhere too long, people call the cops or otherwise run you off. All of these lead to a stressed, exhausted, and desperate person. Homeless people suffer from mental illness more often than anyone else in the city.
Now for the big question; what do I want to do about it?
I want to create an effective and comprehensive solution. I’m not going to be the candidate that says he’s going to end homelessness. I, personally, believe that is an unreasonable goal. I am, however, going to make sure it doesn’t suck so bad to be homeless, and make sure that people get the help they need and the help they deserve in equal measure.
Many of the aspects of homelessness that lead to mental illness need to be addressed. My first priority is sleep. Sleep deprivation leads to mental illness and drug abuse. I’m going to say that again because it’s a fact. Sleep deprivation leads to mental illness and drug abuse. If we have people with no safe place to sleep, eventually they end up crazy or on drugs. If you’ve ever had a three day stretch where every time you started to fall asleep some cop told you to move along, you would have the beginnings of paranoia. It’s hard not to feel like the whole world’s out to get you when such a basic need is being forcefully denied by strangers at random.
What do I want to do about it? I want to see more rest areas like Right 2 Dream Too and long term facilities like Dignity Village. We have a surprisingly charitable city, so something as simple as property tax cuts for areas that help the homeless could go a long way towards helping people help each other. I also want to see the city given power to seize unused property for use as a temporary shelter on days when the weather is extreme enough to kill. Then, we could have a warehouse somewhere full of sleeping bags, space heaters, tents, and maybe a couple spot lights so people would know where they can find some shelter. (I’m thinking bat signals with tents instead of bats. It’s ridiculous, but I like the imagery.)
After we’ve addressed people’s need for sleep, I want to build lockers all over the city. I know it sounds like a minor thing, but seriously having a safe place to keep your stuff is a huge deal. Once someone has a full shopping cart that contains all of their possessions, it’s easy for something as simple as a steep hill and a stiff wind to separate a person from their net worth.
It’s particularly difficult to guard your stuff while sleeping. If someone is living on the streets and trying to work their way off the streets, we should make sure they have somewhere to keep the tools they need safe. I know it sounds like a little thing, but seriously we need lockers. Building lockers all over the city wouldn’t really cost that much anyway and key rental would probably make the whole thing pay for itself pretty quickly.
The last thing I want to talk to you about is the one that ties most directly to the question at hand. What do I want to do to effect positive change in effective mental health services? I want to set a higher priority to case management. Right now, in our homelessness budget, case management is the smallest category with eight percent of the budget. Studies have shown that in Portland we spend about half our money for homelessness on a chronic ten percent of the homeless population. In other words, some people are milking us dry while others who are genuinely in need suffer in the streets. This is the biggest problem with the ineffectiveness of our “solution” to the homeless. We allow ten percent of a population to starve out the other ninety. Why is case management, the part that determines who gets what money, the lowest priority? Our case workers are the ones that determine if a person is suffering from an addiction that can be treated or if they are trying to self medicate a mental disorder. Without the funds to send people to the services they need, our case workers are out their with their hands cuffed. We need enough case workers out there to actually know what’s best for any given person and they need the funding to send people to the help they require.
In summary, I want to address the root of the problems and ensure that the people most suffering get the help they need. I’m not just quoting past accomplishments, promising ideals without substance, or selling myself as a viable candidate. I’m offering ideas. If you like them, vote for me.
See – Nuttall for Mayor
On January 27 the Mental Health Association of Portland sent questions to all Oregon political candidates. This is one response. This post is not a political endorsement but an opportunity to speak out about mental illness. Minor changes may have been made to the text for clarity.