The Secret Life of Melanie O.
Friday, April 20, 2007
The Homeless Campaign
I work for a large charity in New South Wales, and our winter campaign (which will be summer to all of you north of the equator) will center on the issues surrounding mental illness and homelessness.

Just one or a combination of factors may cause a person to be homeless:

  • Mental illness
  • Alcoholism
  • Other substance abuse
  • Lack of affordable accommodation
  • Physical handicaps
  • Gambling
  • Inability to budget
  • Family breakdown
  • Unemployment
  • Discharge from institutions such as hospitals and jails
  • Loneliness
  • Social isolation
  • Lack of family network or support
  • Institutionalisation as children
  • Physical conditions including HIV/AIDS.
I get furious when I hear people say that homelessness is that own person's fault. People who say this are clueless. Most people who are homeless are mentally ill or have addictions. They will rarely ever be able to function in a society that is set up for those of us who are mentally and physically healthy. It may have been French sociologist Pierre Bordieu who claimed that at any given time in history, there is 5% of the population that is non-functioning; essentially unable to hold down a job due to psychological, emotional, or economic conditions.

My son Andy is often homeless, with the occasional reprieve given to him by family members. Andy is difficult to live with, and usually uncooperative. He's anorexic and by turns is belligerent and depressed. Andy is severely Bipolar and may have Schizoaffective Disorder (he was once diagnosed as being schizophrenic, but is not.) He's part of our family and we care what happens to him, even though his world revolves around himself. He's got the emotional maturity of a 15 year old and thinks he should be catered to because of his illness. He makes it tough to like him. But we love Andy.

Every time I see a homeless teen, man, or woman on the street, I am reminded that that person is someone's child, sister, brother, or parent. There are homeless people on the street with university degrees. There are entire families who call the family car 'home.' Some people will make it with a "leg up" from a charitable organisation and get jobs and get off the street. Other people will survive just one more day due to charitable organisations. My son maintains a close relationship with a Christian mission in Texas in order to survive. He's not a down on his luck guy who will make it with job training and a leg up. At least, not this year.

I couldn't care for my son in my home - he is too disruptive and uncooperative - but I can donate to those charities who have the experience and facilities to do so. The government has ceased to fund mental hospitals. The one Andy used to go to in Raleigh, NC has closed its doors. So, where do all of these people go? I guess the government thinks that with medication, these people will be able to rejoin our healthy society as functioning members. And they can - for a little while - but then they'll be back on the streets. That's the way it works for many countless mentally ill and addicted people.

There's no happy ending to this story. It's just about getting by day to day. I wait for letters from my son to hear that he's all right. I dread the day that I hear he isn't.
posted by Melanie O. at 11:25 AM -
  • At 4:18 AM, Blogger gardenbug said…

    Thanks for writing about Andy. Thanks for making mental illness a project for Wesley Mission. I put in two years to help Andy. He made it a project to undo everything I did for him. I have a friend from The Hartford who has a daughter with the same illness. She, too, wants life on her terms regardless of how disasterous it is for her. After my last attempt to help Andy (He refused to take his meds or go to counselling)...after that I realized I have to leave it up to the professionals to deal with Andy. I let him go to Fort Worth. Unfortunately, those programs are where the cuts are. The staff is willing, but resources are few. Andy got a patchwork of programs to help him. He refused them because they were located several blocks from each other. He didn't want to walk from one to the other. The best that the professionals can do at this time, is something basic. That is not the best that they can be. Perhaps in the future, medicine will have unlocked the problems of mental illness, but not today. The mentally ill suffer psychologically and physically. They die young.

  • At 7:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    A very thoughtful and timely entry in your blog Melanie. Here in the U.S. we're debating what can be done with limited resources and what can be done without violating a person's rights. In the more ignorant cultures, they wouldn't care. We care and yet we don't do as much as we can if mental illness were more of a priority.
    I also question at what point does personality leave off and dysfunction take over in a person's classification by others. Especially when we age and become more dependent. Howard Hughes would never have been labeled "recluse" in his younger years.
    Here in the states too, the psychiatrists and psychologists are just as suspect in their abilities and own dysfunctions. So, where do we go from here? We all suffer by letting those who suffer more walk by.


  • At 9:56 AM, Blogger LivinginOz said…

    Everyone in the family, it seems, has tried to help Andy in one capacity or another - it's the most frustrating task: thankless, and you get nowhere. You can't help but care, though. And I do agree that health care is limited - by lack of knowledge and, as you say, DN, by human dysfunctions. One of the most dysfunctional people I ever met was a professional counsellor. Can anyone really ever help anyone else? Sometimes I wonder. Maybe all we really do is help ourselves by bouncing ideas off other people and eventually figure it out on our own.

  • At 11:22 AM, Blogger Kanani said…

    Every time I see a homeless man or woman, I think "that's someone's son/daughter/cousin/nephew/niece/grandson/granddaughter.
    At one time I want to believe that they belonged somewhere with someone, that there were people who loved them.

    And I also think, that could be MY son out there, given his own list of psychiatric and behavioral issues that have plagued him since he was very young.

    I know you tried very hard with Andy and that you still do.
    Will is getting harder. The only thing that really keeps me going are friends, and all the blogs I read that take me to different places and mindsets.

    I also made a decision the other day. I absolutely cannot be around negative people. If I am not enjoying what I am doing, I have to get out. So I wrote my professor and told him I'd be out for a month. The writing workshop wasn't fun, it was draining. And there were some of the most cutting sarcastic remarks on my pages that were more self-serving than they were helpful.

    So I'm not there this month, and probably won't go back at all. But... my writing is back on key. I'll finish the book on time as planned. I'm having more fun with a few select people in person who go over my writing AND a few great writers who have blogs. And that's where I get my energy.

    Anyway, sorry to go on.

  • At 4:44 PM, Blogger LivinginOz said…

    It's been my observation, when you have a mental illness or addiction, one of the consequences for not addressing it is to alienate every person who has ever cared for you. I've met men and women whose parents have washed their hands of them. And while I feel for these people, I can understand why this happens.

    As a parent of a child with a mental disorder, I can testify that it is DRAINING. I often regret the fact that I couldn't spend as much time with my other sons as I would have liked because one or two of them required 24/7 vigilance. I feel that the whole family was cheated, at times.

    I almost hate to say it, but sometimes you have to be a bit selfish - to maintain your own mental health. And then the whole guilt cycle starts.

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About Me
Name: Melanie O.
Home: Durham, North Carolina, United States
About Me: Female, American health and beauty-conscious professional who has rekindled a childhood love of dolls.
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