By Emmy Tiderington, Ph.D., LMSW

As a social work professor who researches homeless services, I am often asked what can be done to help individuals who are living on the streets and have a mental illness. Witnessing someone who appears to be homeless talking to themselves, pacing, and acting strangely in public, can be a disturbing sight that invokes fear in the observer. Yet, it is this fear itself that may be hindering the effectiveness of our public response to addressing mental illness in homeless populations.

Stigma against people experiencing homelessness is reflected in the widespread, discriminatory laws in communities across the U.S. that criminalize acts of survival for people without housing, such as panhandling, lying down, or sleeping in public places. Punishing people for being homeless in this way, using fines and criminal charges, only makes it harder for individuals to access housing. Public stigma also contributes to a “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) attitude which frequently impedes the development of that which is needed most to address mental illness in homeless populations – HOUSING.

We have mountains of evidence showing that “no strings attached” affordable housing, when provided in combination with intensive, embedded support services (i.e., supportive housing) effectively ends homelessness for people with complex needs such as serious mental illness and substance abuse. Having safe and stable housing with available supports provides individuals with a platform for recovery from mental illness. We just don’t have nearly enough of these specialized housing units for everyone who needs one (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2016 - Furthermore, community concerns about upticks in crime and decreases in property values when supportive housing is located “in one’s backyard” are generally unfounded (Coburn, 2015 – neighborhoods/ ).

So, as we honor Mental Health Awareness Month this May, please remember that housing is mental health care and think about what you can do to advocate for affordable housing and end stigma against unhoused people with mental illness in your community.




This story was created in partnership with Rutgers School of Social Work's Inclusion, Intersectionality, Diversity, Equity, and Advancement (IIDEA) Committee in support of our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.