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Mentally ill and homeless

July 10, 2010
Adirondack Daily Enterprise

What would you do if you or someone you knew were homeless? Who do you call? Where do you go? The vicious circle is that once you lose your home, it is close to impossible to find a job without an address.

However, homeless people who will never work due to mental illness have an even harder time finding homes because for them, they sometimes don't even recognize they are in a dire situation. Having a mental illness makes it harder for them to figure out how to get back on their feet without the help of an advocate.

There is a growing amount of people becoming homeless due to the tough economy. Some have jobs, and some have social service assistance to cover the rent but barely anything for utilities, food and transportation. Landlords can't afford to take a chance on someone who might destroy an apartment or get behind on their rent, so some are forced to camp in the woods or find sympathetic friends with couches.

The growing problem we see in the Tri-Lakes is people suffering from mental illness. They can't be institutionalized unless a judge or two doctors rule that they are a danger to themselves or others. Wouldn't you think stealing food, destroying their apartments or other people's property, wearing the same clothes all the time and being out at all hours in winter, talking to themselves, would qualify as a danger to oneself? Well, it doesn't, according to the standards applied around here.

You will sometimes read about them in our police blotter. What you won't read is what happens after they are arrested. Sometimes they're taken to a local hospital and released shortly afterward. This can happen dozens of times to the same person in a matter of months. Sometimes they're taken to the mental-health hospital in Ogdensburg until they get back on the medication they've rejected. They don't want to take their medication - sometimes due to side effects, sometimes because paranoid schizophrenia makes them, well, paranoid - and they can't be forced to, so the circle continues.

Temporary fixes are offered, but not long-term answers. Some churches will put a person up for one night, the Harrietstown Housing Authority will take some in, and ComLinks will find a safe home for victims of domestic abuse, but what about the seriously mentally handicapped?

We envision a shelter with oversight to make sure they are clean, fed and, if possible, taking their meds. Others in the community, such as Saranac Lake's renewed interfaith council, have expressed a similar goal for the homeless, although we're not sure if they were including those with serious mental illness.

This would be a very difficult project to undertake, but it is needed.

Another, non-local option would be changing the criteria of the law that defines how someone can be a danger to themselves or others, so they can be sent to a safe, medically supervised place where they can be stabilized as needed.

What is your solution? We'd like to know your input.



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