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.
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.”
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.
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