As I read the Observer-Reporter’s recent articles on homelessness, I noticed frequent mention of another problem: mental illness. Nearly everyone profiled experienced it. This is unsurprising, as nearly a third of all homeless individuals in the country also suffer from mental illness. For almost 40 years, rates of homelessness have risen alongside the closings of state mental health hospitals. Instead of receiving psychiatric care, those with nowhere to go are left to fend for themselves. Often unaware of their own illness, they are vulnerable to disease, robbery and violence.
Clearly, this is a humanitarian issue concerning quality of life. It is also an economic issue. The chronically homeless cost the community thousands of dollars each year in health care and prison costs. However, a 2012 research study by Los Angeles County, Calif., seems to have a solution that restores dignity to the homeless and saves money. The study found that when the mentally ill homeless are provided with free housing, psychiatric care and intensive case management, their quality of life increases. Study participants showed improved mental health. Many were even able to reintegrate into the community, pursuing an education or finding work. The program also saved the county over $3 million, because keeping people healthy and off the streets drastically cuts costs of medical services and incarceration.
When life for the homeless improves, the entire community is strengthened, as the Los Angeles County study shows. It might behoove Washington and other counties to consider a similar program, that meets homeless individuals’ needs for housing, mental health and medical services. When people’s basic needs are met, they have a better chance of improving their lives and reintegrating into society, certainly a better alternative than allowing them to suffer on the streets.