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How Mental Illness Can Affect the Choice to Be Homeless

A four-year experience of schizophrenia and homelessness.

I was homeless from March of 2003 until March of 2007.

But today, fourteen years later, I live a very different life. In 2017, I moved into a small one-bedroom apartment. I have a spacious living room, a large bedroom, and my own full kitchen. One of my favorite things to do is serve waffles, eggs, and coffee to friends who drop by.

Since 2009, I have lived in the University of Cincinnati community. I graduated from the University of Cincinnati magna cum laude in molecular biology ten years ago.

The living room of my apartment serves as my office. I work as an author and mental health advocate, all from home. As a speaker, I have traveled extensively.

Being homeless was a terrible experience. To say I never would want to go back in time and be homeless again is an understatement. I suffered every day. But while I was homeless, several people, including my parents, offered me a free place to stay with no strings attached. I rejected everyone, choosing to spend rainy nights sleeping outside underneath an overhang in the front of a Los Angeles church. I considered the churchyard to be my home.

Through my work, I respond to families who have loved ones with schizophrenia and other brain disorders. One of the biggest surprises I have found over the past few years is the enormous number of moms and dads who contact me about their loved one behaving as I did in 2003-2007, totally refusing family and friends for help, preferring the homeless life.

A mom recently contacted me whose son was in a physics PhD program at a major California university. Months before his anticipated graduation, he took off, and began living out of his car in a community far away from the university. This mother contacted me at a loss to know how to proceed.

Looking back, I always thought that my choice to be homeless was rational and truly my own choice. However, when I began my first antipsychotic medication, I began asking myself questions. Why did I live outside when so many families would have had me, including my own family? Why was I not in touch with my own mom and dad? I also wondered why I had dropped out of college. As the medication cleared my mind, my desire to be homeless was replaced by a new and clearer outlook on life.

I encouraged the mom of the physics graduate student to try to get her son a diagnosis, and if appropriate, treatment. My hope was that, if he began treatment, he would be able to resume his studies at the university as I did.

Yesterday, I spoke with another mom whose son spent six years sleeping in a library at a Michigan university where he had completed bachelors’ degrees in physics and math.

Years after he began abusing his privileges on campus, his mother contacted campus security at his university and discovered that they knew her son. She helped him move into stable housing. But soon after, he left again, running away, preferring to be homeless. A doctor determined he was not a danger to himself or others, or gravely disabled. Because he did not fit those criteria, it was impossible to mandate that he begin treatment. She spent tens of thousands of dollars hiring a private detective to find him, all to no avail.

I also recently interacted with a woman who had been given a mental health diagnosis in her twenties. She was considering selling her house, giving away her possessions and becoming homeless. She said her goal was to benefit others who were homeless. I tried to explain to her that if she began antipsychotic medication, she might view things differently and change her mind. I encouraged her to find other, more effective ways to help the homeless without losing or giving away everything she owns, or doing something else she might regret.

But what surprised me most was her reasoning–that she would help the homeless the most by becoming homeless herself. I recall thinking the same way as I moved out of my apartment in 2003 with nowhere to go.

We live in an amazing era for the advanced treatment of brain disorders. If no medications were available to me, I believe I would still be sleeping outside. Or I may have been picked up by police for loitering or trespassing and taken to jail for months or years. Decades back, my schizophrenia would have been a life sentence, as I would have spent my entire adult lifetime in an institution. But with today’s medical advancement, I was able to begin a medication that enabled me to graduate from college, and encourage others to reclaim their lives and dream.

There is hope for the chronically homeless who spend months or years living outside. The keys include dedicated mental health treatment, often with medication. I never used substances or alcohol while sleeping outside, but many do. Offering the homeless rehabilitation programs to deal with substance abuse is also vital.

When I see homeless people living outside in Cincinnati, I pray that they will have access to decent health care like I found. I hope each of them will someday find health, and a new chance at life.