March 2016: Homelessness and mental health

I saw them through the restaurant window the minute I sat down. They were a family of four, with two kids under 10, a tiny dog, and a pile of luggage, sitting next to the highway.  I was making a “pit stop” on a day-long drive home and planning the final leg of the journey, but I couldn’t stop watching and wondering about them.
After my meal, I got into my car and drove over to them.  “Folks, I’m worried about you being so close to the highway. Can I help in any way?”  Their story was familiar:  The economic devastation of 2007-2009 had cost mom and dad their jobs, wiped out their savings and, finally, rendered them homeless and penniless. They were on their way to a distant location, where family would take them in until they could get back on their feet, but their vehicle had failed. They had hitched a ride across two states, but could get no farther.
Family would arrive the next day to collect them, so they were stuck there beside the highway for the next 24 hours.  My first impulse was to pile them into the car and drive them “home,” but it would mean driving all night and adding two days to my trip, and was already tired.  I could not leave them there and live with myself, so I offered to put them up for the night in a nearby motel.
“I can’t…” the dad stammered, trembling and looking away.
“I’m a dad, too,” I said.  “Let’s get the kids in safe beds tonight. They don’t need to know.”
After getting room keys, mom and the kids hurried down the hall, with the kids chattering about the hotel pool.  I handed the dad my business card.  “Give me a call when you get there. Let me know you made it.”
All the way home, I agonized over whether I’d done the right thing, and all weekend I worried about them.  Late Sunday night, my phone rang:  They were home.
Home.  Few words mean so much, are so heavy with emotional meaning, or have such an effect on our lives.  I think of that family and feel the power of that word every time I hear from the Family Service Madison partners at Housing Initiatives, Inc. (HII).
In Dane County, every year, 3,500 people – more than 1,000 of them children — know the loss of home. Job loss and poverty, affordable housing shortages, severe mental illness, racial disparity, and domestic violence are the chief causes.  While 32% of Madison’s homeless report a diagnosed mental illness, it is believed 60% or more of homeless people have an undiagnosed mental illness.
Thank God for HII, which has developed an innovative, successful model for addressing this problem. More than 95% of program participants never return to the streets.  Over the past two decades, HII has ended homelessness for more than 600 men and women, with a special eye on veterans, who suffer from a mental illness, by providing them with a permanent home and supportive services to help them lead healthier lives.  The safety, peace, and hope born of having a home is the foundation these folks need to begin the healing process. HII is the only organization in Madison that focuses exclusively on ending homelessness among those who suffer from severe mental illness.
In addition to meeting these basic human needs, HII enriches our neighborhoods by purchasing and renovating properties that are failing and saves tax-payers the $40,000 per a homeless mentally ill person costs in emergency visits, jail visits, shelters, etc. The cost for HII to provide permanent housing and counseling to these same people is just $10,000 per year.
You and I can help.
Join HII March 30, from 5 to 8:30 PM, at the downtown library to watch Richard Gere’s impressive performance as a homeless man with mental illness in Time Out Of Mind. Free pizza and drinks are offered. To help them estimate how much pizza they’ll need, they’d like us to RSVP here.
If you can’t make it, you can help out with a donation here.

In my case, I struggled to know what the right thing to do was.  In this case, the right thing is obvious.  Thank you for doing the right thing.
Post script:  Almost a year later, I received mail with no return address. Inside, I found two $20 bills and a simple note:   “We’re working and have our own place now.  God bless you.”