Mental Health Services

by Michael McCray

Russell lived under the bridge for years, diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic he felt safe there. Under the bridge no one looked at him strangely if he had seizures. Under the bridge he could have his occasional drink without anyone objecting.

If it was raining or snowing Russell would sleep under the bridge. On a pleasant day he would lie out in the sun or under the stars at night next to the bridge. When it was cold at night, he would crawl into an abandoned car for the night. His evening meal came from the City Mission and the morning meal from St. Malachi Catholic Church. The public libraries provided a place to get out of the weather during the day and he liked to read.

It was seventeen degrees below zero one Christmas Eve night, and so he lost most of his fingers to frostbite. His day-to-day life was a little hard when your mind is broken and your health is failing. When your family has passed away and you are homeless, it is next to impossible.

Not all mentally ill homeless individuals want help or realize that they need help. There is a clash between the needs of individual and the rights of an individual that condemn many to a life on the street. Russell died by the bridge never wanting help, alone under the bridge.

According to a report issued by the Federal Task Force on homelessness and severe mental illness, a third of the homeless people in America are believed to suffer from severe mental illness. They found that support services for these persons are fragmented; food, shelter, clothing, medical services and mental health services are all handled by different agencies with different agendas. Navigating through such a fragmented support system for a mentally ill person is a task next to impossible.

Drug and alcohol abuse complicate the problems of many of these individuals. According to the report "For some individuals, substance abuse is the cause of the homelessness; for others, it is the result."

Mental Health Services, a mental health provider for homeless individuals in Cuyahoga County, is working to end the fragmentation service for the homeless. They are attempting to integrate services provided to the mentally ill homeless. Located at Bishop Cosgrove Center, which also houses a meal program sponsored by Catholic Charities for homeless individuals, the program attempts to meet a variety of needs.

"We realize that our clients have a multitude of needs," states Dr. Steve Friedman the director of the program. "About 50% of our clients have a drug and/or alcohol problem. While it is impossible to generalize, a percentage of homeless individuals are homeless simply because they are mentally ill. They also have a wide range of other health problems that need to be addressed," he says.

Loans for emergency housing and food are available through the program and the word "loan" must be stressed says Dr. Friedman.

"We also offer payee services to help manage the funds for an individual. Many people are not able to manage their money. They tend to spend all their funds before they have met their basic needs for the month," he says.

Mental Health Services also has a twenty-four hour crisis intervention team available to anyone needing help in Cuyahoga County. This service is beyond the counseling services usually offered to homeless individuals. All services are available only at the request of someone wanting help.

Copyright by the Homeless Grapevine Issue 11, August-September 1995, Cleveland, Ohio