On Mental Health Day, It’s Time To Talk About How Homeless Women Aren’t Getting The Care They Really Need

 In Health
In honor of World Mental Health Day, we’re shedding a light on the true story of homeless women across America. From the untold circumstances that brought it on, to the lack of trauma care given to them, the odds are stacked against these women. The topic: A look at the struggles homeless women with mental illness face — and how we can help them.

On a September night at The Dwelling Place of NY, the dining hall came alive with residents’ excitement. In the transitional residence, founded 40 years ago to provide a space for homeless women to get the help and support they need, an actor visited to teach the ladies some of his best clown moves. As the women tried their hand at it, the staff joined in and, soon, the whole shelter was filled with laughter. As the night winded down, one of the residents made her way over to Sister Joann Sambs, the shelter’s administrator. She said that for those 45 minutes, spent quite literally clowning around, her problems had slipped away. In those three quarters of an hour, she was not a homeless woman recovering in a shelter, but just another woman, enjoying her life.  

When Sister Joann relayed this story to me the following day, I was immediately heartened by the strength that these women, who have been through horrible ordeals, can still have to create a better life for themselves. Many of the women at the shelter not only deal with the economic issues of being homeless, but also the trauma that has come from the painful experiences they’ve faced.

Homeless women’s struggles with mental health issues will be out of the spotlight, even though they’re more likely to struggle with depression.

On October 10, over 100 countries, including the U.S., recognize World Mental Health Day, a day designated to increase mental health education and awareness globally. However, homeless women’s struggles with mental health issues will be out of the spotlight, even though research shows they’re more likely to struggle with depression. Homeless women are often treated as though they created their situation, with too many people questioning why they should be helped. In truth, most women have fled a horrific situation, with no other option than to become homeless. Nearly 50 percent of all women who are homeless report that domestic violence was the immediate cause of their homelessness. So this World Mental Health Day, it’s time to put a stop to their invisibility and acknowledge the care these women need.

How Many Homeless Women Face Mental Health Issues?

As of 2015, the National Alliance to End Homelessness reported that about 565,000 people living in the United States were homeless on any given night. Of that number, an estimated almost 40 percent of those individuals are women. According to the American Psychological Association, 47 percent of those women are living with a major depressive disorder, which is double the amount of women in the general population who have a major depressive disorder.


Even when facing a mental health issue not as severe as a major depressive disorder, homeless women often lack the resources to get help, which only exasperates their problem. Additionally, 85 percent of homeless families are headed by women, creating an extra burden for women who are mothers. “[The mental illness] may not be the most severe form but it certainly can be debilitating and it certainly can impact how well they can provide for their children and their functioning,” Dr. Carmela DeCandia, licensed psychologist and professor in Boston College’s mental health counseling program, tells Bustle. “And people don’t necessarily want to look at that because they want to look at homelessness as basically just an issue of housing but it’s not just about housing, and the moms with trauma and depression really aren’t getting the services that they need.” To get help, women first have to find a shelter to take them in — something that has become increasingly difficult.

Mental Health Shelters Are Unable To Meet Demand

As time passes, things have only been getting worse for homeless women with mental illness The Coalition For The Homeless (CFTH) reports that the amount of homeless New Yorkers currently sleeping in shelters is 77 percent higher than it was 10 years ago. The organization also reported that the amount of shelter beds provided for those requiring mental health support decreased from 26 percent to 24.3 percent between 2014 and 2016. While shelter capacity grew 17 percent, mental health capacity increased by only 12 percent.

Recognizing this lack of access, CFTH teamed with The Legal Aid Society to submit testimony to The New York City Council Committee on Mental Health, Developmental Disability, Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Disability Services. The testimony explained that, while the need for additional mental health beds is increasing, the supply has not risen along with it. As a result, there’s not enough room in shelters for homeless individuals affected by illness.

In another recent heartbreaking report, the City’s Department of Homeless Services found that out of the first 120 days of 2017, there were 35 days without a single mental health bed vacancy for homeless men and 18 days without a mental health bed available for homeless women.

Dealing with a mental illness while homeless is a challenge in and of itself but, the lack of shelter placements available has further exasperated these issues. “I mean, there’s mental illness and then there’s a form of stress and depression that sort of manifests itself,” Ruth White, MSSA, Executive Director, National Council on Homelessness and Child Welfare, tells Bustle. “So, it’s like, along the mental illness continuum, things get more and more exacerbated.”

The testimony went on to explain that in place of a bed, people have had no other option but to sleep in a chair or face extremely unstable placements, like moving locations night after night or waiting for a mental health bed to become available.

Where Did Affordable Housing Go?

Even for the homeless women that do get into shelters, it’s unlikely they’ll know where they’ll go from there. “When I started my social work career in the 90s, you didn’t just have an emergency response, you could actually get someone into affordable housing,” White says. “Housing was not so out of scale with income, so, at that point in history, women’s mental illness would not become exacerbated and completely out of control, because of the stress. We could help them move into a shelter, then we could very quickly move them through the shelter system into affordable housing.”

White believes that affordable housing is no longer a reality, meaning the option of a federal housing subsidy is ruled out as well. “If you’re a social worker working with a family, that’s not an option. But also, the affordable housing crisis is absolutely out of control,” says White. “Even for working people who are doing pretty well, housing is becoming something like 50 to 70 percent of their income.” A 2016 Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies report indicated that over 11 million Americans are spending over half of their income on rent with another 21 million spending at least 30 percent.

As it’s become harder to find a sustainable housing solution, women are remaining in shelters. Some women are even forgoing a shelter and staying in abusive relationships because they don’t see a way out. Each factor leads to these women’s mental health being compromised as the stress and inability to control their fate weighs down on them.

“Just because it might not be as dramatic as something that you might see, doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

While the shortage of beds is certainly to blame, the lack of urgency to find solutions for homeless women dealing with mental health issues also contributes to the problem. “I think, even in our society, people don’t recognize that women struggling with domestic violence or interpersonal trauma and, even a mild level of depression, affects [their] functioning,”  Dr. DeCandia says. “You might not be walking around the street, but you may keep having trouble holding a job, you might be having trouble meeting all your kids needs, you may have trouble sleeping at night, or be in a relationship and kind of having trouble functioning over time. Even finishing school perhaps. So, just because it might not be as dramatic as something that you might see, doesn’t mean it’s not there. And I think we have to really get serious about acknowledging that.” Luckily there are places that do acknowledge that all forms of mental illness must be taken seriously, and open their doors to help.

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