Outcasts: The Mental Health of Homeless in the Bay Area


I live in the Bay Area, where there is a huge homeless population. It is something that is normal to me, since I grew up here in Oakland. It seems as though everywhere I go, there are growing amounts of homeless encampments under freeway overpasses or homeless people in BART stations or on BART. Some can be seen talking to themselves or acting in a way that causes us to give them a wide berth. Many of these people suffer from a mental disorder or addiction, and are unable to get help. I’ve always had an interest in abnormal psychology and mental health, and my sister works at the Ritter Center, an organization in San Rafael that provides services to the low-income and homeless. I knew that there was an overlap between mental health and the homeless, but I really wanted to explore it further. Once I did some research into mental health among the homeless population, I started to wonder why there weren’t as many resources for the homeless population and why so many people didn’t know that this was such a huge issue. My goal was to do more research into the homeless population in the Bay Area, and make myself and those around me more aware of the mental health challenges faced by the homeless. 


Do you live in a city where there is a large homeless population?

Created with PollMaker


In 2017, the San Francisco Homeless Count and Survey Report reported 7,499 homeless people. That is slightly fewer than in 2015, but still significantly higher than previous years. In Contra Costa, the number was also slightly lower than previous years, but in Alameda, the number of homeless people had gone up by over 1,000 since 2015. The issue of homelessness is apparent in the Bay Area. There is no one solution that is an easy fix, but raising awareness about mental health among the homeless and providing accessible services is one good solution.

There are many organizations across the Bay Area that are currently working with homeless people who suffer from addiction or a mental disorder and need services and housing. In 2016, The San Francisco Chronicle wrote an article on the Homeless Outreach Team, a “multidisciplinary team [that] serves individuals living on the street who are severely disabled” (Homeless Outreach Team). After reading the article, I was interested by the work that the team was doing to help the homeless population. I also decided to look more into the “housing first” movement, which is an approach that places homeless people in housing and then provides services and resources. I had heard the term before, but didn’t know much about it. Later, when I interviewed Dr. Gregory Alter from the Ritter Center in San Rafael, he told me that he was fully on board with the housing first movement: “Once someone has housing, other things will start to fall into place. They need the foundation and basic necessities first.”



Mental health and homelessness in the bay area by Nicole Sanders



Dr. Gregory Alter and the Ritter Center

 I interviewed Gregory Alter, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist who works as the Director of the Behavioral Health Department at the Ritter Center. The Ritter Center aims to “to prevent homelessness and improve the health and well-being of individuals and families… by providing a range of culturally sensitive, easily accessible, high quality medical care and social services.” Dr. Alter emphasized the large overlap between mental health and homelessness, and how providing help for mental disorders and addiction would help a large part of the homeless population. He strongly supports the housing first movement because through his work he has noticed that once there is some sense of stability and care in someone’s life, it will be easier for them to have active appointments with a therapist or take their medication regularly, as well as get a job. He sees the positive change that can come from people getting consistent services and help from people and organizations such as the Ritter Center. Despite this positive change Dr. Alter has noticed that in all his years working in the Bay Area there has been barely any change. He believes that there is a “huge inability and lack of interest in helping these people” on both the part of the government and the part of the individuals. 



What Can You Do?

A lot can be done by the government and on the larger scale to help the homeless population, such as providing additional funding, but what can you do? To start, do more research. Look into local organizations and find out more about the housing first movement, or donate your resources or time to volunteer. Dr. Alter said that you should also never be afraid to reach out to an organization or take initiative to spark change. When I told him my goal with my research was to learn more and become more aware of the overlap between mental health and homelessness, he stressed how important awareness is. If you can, it is so important to learn more about this issue and raise awareness. Everything you do is impactful, no matter how small, because you are learning more and helping in some way.


Sources Cited:

Wells, Jane. Gird Your Tenderloin! Someone Dissed San Francisco. CNBC, 19 Aug. 2013,

Bay Area News Group. Photos: Homelessness throughout Oakland. East Bay Times, 24 May 2017,

Brinklow, Adam. San Francisco Has 7,499 Homeless Residents by Latest Count. Curbed SF, 16 June 2017,

Applied Survey Research. San Francisco 2017 Homeless Count & Survey. 2017,

Richards, Sam. “Head Count of Contra Costa Homeless Tracks Trends, Needs.” East Bay Times, East Bay Times, 24 Jan. 2018,

“Homeless Outreach Team – HOT Team – H.O.T. Team.” San Francisco Homeless Resource,

Allday, Erin. “The Streets’ Sickest, Costliest: the Mentally Ill.” San Francisco Chronicle, 29 June 2016,

“Housing First.” National Alliance to End Homelessness, 20 Apr. 2016,

“Services for Low Income and Homeless | San Rafael, Marin County.” Ritter Center,


Share this project
  1. April 27, 2018 by Tatum Angotti

    Hi Nicole, I also live in the Bay Area so it was really interesting to hear more detail about this issue. I agree that it is definitely not a prioritized issue when perhaps it definitely should be. A small suggestion I have is to maybe add a link to a website about information about homelessness at the end under the What Can You Do section or an idea other than awareness that we can implement into our lives.

    • April 30, 2018 by Nicole.Sanders

      That’s a really good suggestion! I added a link to the Ritter Center’s volunteer page, and from there you can explore other ways to help and information on their website.

  2. April 27, 2018 by Karen Bradley

    Interesting topic, Nicole! Your writing is so deeply empathetic, I really appreciate that! In addition to agreeing with the previous commenter that more “What You Can Do” items might make the reader feel more hopeful, I wondered why it is that governments and people with homes are so reluctant to engage with this issue to ease the problem. Did you encounter any answers to this question in your research?

    • April 30, 2018 by Nicole.Sanders

      Thank you! During my interview with Dr. Alter, I asked him where the reluctance to help that he sees stems from. He said that because of the stigma around the homeless being crazy or dangerous, they are often avoided and not talked about. He also said that he has noticed some willingness to change on the part of the government when groups of people or organizations such as the Ritter Center have gotten together to push for change on the political level.

  3. April 28, 2018 by Rikako.Kent

    Nicole, my grandparents live in the Bay Area so this topic was one that captured my attention. I like that you incorporated an interview within your project as it uses Ethos (credible source). One recommendation I have is to make your infographic size a little smaller if that is possible. It is clear you did a lot of research on homelessness in the Bay Area and I agree with your government intervention solution. Changes are most effective when it is through the government sector and pushing for change in that way is a good approach. Good job!

    • April 30, 2018 by Nicole.Sanders

      Thanks! I used a website to make the infographic where the size was predetermined, but I’ll try to change the size. I agree that political change is really important! It can be hard to get the government to make change, but it is really effective.

  4. April 28, 2018 by Anna Demopulos

    Hi Nicole, really great job! I really loved the poll to introduce the project and the graphics were very engaging! Homelessness feels like an enormous problem that we can’t fix, but thank you for showing us that there is something we can do! I live in Seattle which also has an enormous homeless population as well as San Francisco. Thank you for bringing awareness to this issue!

    • April 30, 2018 by Nicole.Sanders

      Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed my project.

  5. April 29, 2018 by Mailie Saito

    Hi Nicole. I really liked how you added a poll in the beginning. Your infographic highlighted important details and was easy to follow. I live in a city with a large amount of homeless people so this was really interesting to read!

    • April 30, 2018 by Nicole.Sanders

      Thank you Mailie!

  6. April 29, 2018 by Aidan.Pak

    Fantastic project! I live in the Bay area and was unaware of the major issue of mental illnesses within our homeless! Great Job!

    • April 30, 2018 by Nicole.Sanders


  7. April 30, 2018 by Annika.Singh

    The statistics you included were really shocking! I live in Seattle, where we also have a homelessness problem and I think it would be super interesting to see if the responses about mental health were the same. Great job!

    • April 30, 2018 by Nicole.Sanders

      It would be so interesting to compare statistics from major cities across the United States!

  8. April 30, 2018 by Grace

    Hi! I love the use of the interview here as well as your visuals. They do a great job furthering the quality of information you presented as well as interactivity. I loved this a lot, especially cause I live in the Bay Area and the issue of mental health of homelessness is something I definitely see everyday.

    • April 30, 2018 by Nicole.Sanders

      Thank you Grace!

  9. April 30, 2018 by CC Yin

    Hi Nicole, this is such a great project! I was actually just in San Fransisco and saw a lot of the homeless… I never thought to look at it through a psychological perspective. Great job not only choosing your topic, but also creating an amazing, detailed project as well!

    • April 30, 2018 by Nicole.Sanders

      Thanks! I’m glad my project led you to look at this issue through a new perspective!

  10. May 01, 2018 by Isabelle.Franz

    Hi Nicole! I used to live in the Bay Area so when I saw someone doing this topic, I was very excited. When walking around the streets of the Bay Area, it is easy to tell that homelessness is an issue. I think you were able to effectively use pathos through your pictures. I also think your poll in the beginning of the project is very effective, as it gets your audience to begin thinking about homelessness and whether they are familiar with the issue. Good job!

  11. May 02, 2018 by Nicole Sanders

    Thank you!

  12. May 04, 2018 by DeAnna Riley

    Hi, Nicole. I think your poll, statistics, pictures were very effective for your presentation. In New Orleans, there are so many homeless people. However, their living situations are usually all in the same area. When I visited California, the amount of homeless people was unbelievable. I visited San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Monterrey. I didn’t notice a large amount in Monterrey, but my family and I could see the amount of homeless people from the interstate. It was terrible and I believe your topic was important one to promote.

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