Restoring Community: Addressing Mental Illness and Homelessness at The Well

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For those struggling with serious mental illnesses, few things are as devastating as loss of community. The support of friends and family plays a key role in encouraging those dealing with mental health conditions to practice self-care and pursue recovery. But the nature of many of these diseases puts those who struggle at risk for losing the network that can help them manage their illnesses.

Many mental illnesses impact the ability to form and maintain stable relationships, making it hard for those dealing with these conditions to surround themselves with people who can walk with them toward recovery. In addition, those living with serious mental illnesses are at a significantly higher risk for becoming homeless—a hardship that can completely remove them from their communities of support.

“There is a delicate relationship between homelessness and mental illness,” shares Alice Zaccarello, executive director of The Well Community. “Mental illness affects the physical, psychological, emotional, social, occupational and spiritual lives of those living with such disorders.” Those managing mental health challenges often struggle to secure adequate housing, maintain relationships with family, manage their finances, utilize public transportation, hold down jobs and stick with their treatment plans—all factors that increase their risk of becoming homeless.

In turn, homelessness can make mental illness more pronounced, and those experiencing chronic homelessness tend to have more serious mental health conditions and physical illnesses. “When you pair [mental illness] with living on the streets, all of a sudden it isn’t manageable anymore,” says Elissa Romines, co-founder of The Human Impact, a nonprofit organization that finds and fights root causes of poverty in the homeless community of South Dallas. “The environment isn’t conducive to being mentally healthy overall.” The loss of community, lack of autonomy and sleep deprivation that go hand in hand with homelessness all make it incredibly difficult to practice good self-care.

Filling the Gap to Prevent Homelessness

This vicious cycle is one that many in the Dallas area are experiencing firsthand. The 2016 Point–in-Time Homeless Count, which tallies the number of homeless in a single night in January, revealed that 3,810 individuals in Dallas and Collin Counties were homeless. Many deal with debilitating mental health issues on top of the challenges of homelessness. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that one in five homeless people in the United States deals with a serious mental illness. Many more are living with less pronounced mental health challenges.

The Dallas 2014 Point-In-Time Survey revealed just how many more of the homeless in the Dallas area struggle with mental health conditions: Nearly half (43 percent) of the homeless population reported having a mental illness. Many have no family or community that can come alongside them. As Romines explains, “At the heart of being homelessness, there has been a massive break in [a person’s] family or close community of people.”

The Well Community seeks to help restore that community to individuals battling serious mental health challenges, including many at risk for or dealing with homelessness. The Well’s case management services assist community members in securing resources such as housing, food, clothing, benefits, legal aid, crisis intervention and pastoral counseling. “Without this support, members would more often end up in the hospital, jail or homeless,” says Zaccarello.

Through Jacob’s House, a City of Dallas licensed boarding house, The Well Community provides a home and a sense of community for eight men who live with chronic mental illnesses. In addition, The Well’s emphasis on holistic recovery plays a big role in addressing and preventing homelessness. Zaccarello explains, “The Well focuses on empowering those with severe mental illness to work toward self-sufficiency. Our interventions help take our community members to a real place of stability and health and provide a safe place of community where they feel a sense of belonging.”

The Well’s services not only help prevent homelessness; they help members overcome it. According to Zaccarello, one member had lived on the street for years. With help from The Well, he overcame a drug addiction, and for many years has been successfully living in an apartment and maintained a healthy lifestyle of self-care. A prolific artist, he comes to The Well every day and brings his work to share with others.

Making a Difference One Relationship at a Time

Even a small effort to restore community can make a big difference. That’s just what Romines, along with The Human Impact co-founder Elisabeth Jordan found when they began to spend time with the homeless in South Dallas. Three times a week, they took a few hours to simply talk. Romines shares, “We didn’t go in with an agenda. Our goal was to be fully present.”

Over time they were able to build relationships and become part of their new friends’ support systems. As they did, some of the people they befriended began to make more proactive and healthy decisions, such as seeking medical care and connecting with family.

Romines encourages anyone concerned about mental illness and homelessness to begin to get to know those living on the streets in their communities. “Start small and simple. Ask someone their name. Say ‘Hi.’ Shake their hand. It can be kind of awkward, but we’ve seen great things happen when we have a simple conversation with someone.”

She also suggests preparing a care pack, filled with items such as a poncho, deodorant and soft granola bars that can meet immediate physical needs. But, Romines emphasizes that helping the homeless is about restoring lost dignity rather than simply handing out aid, which can dehumanize both the giver and the recipient.

And restoring dignity and hope is exactly what The Well Community is doing as they serve those whose lives have been sabotaged by disabling mental illnesses. Through their efforts some are able to move out of the streets and find a place to call home, a place to belong.

The Well Community serves as a support system for individuals dealing with serious mental illnesses. Your gift to The Well will help prevent and address homelessness among these individuals, providing them with a place to belong and pursue self-sufficiency.

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