Across the country, serious mental health challenges can disrupt people’s ability to carry out essential aspects of daily life, such as self care and household management. Mental illnesses may also prevent people from forming and maintaining stable relationships or cause people to misinterpret others’ guidance and react irrationally. This often results in pushing away caregivers, family, and friends who may be the force keeping that person from becoming homeless. As a result of these factors and the stresses of living with a mental disorder, people with mental illnesses are much more likely to become homeless than the general population (Library Index, 2009).
A study of people with serious mental illnesses seen by California’s public mental health system found that 15% were homeless at least once in a one-year period, and patients with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are particularly vulnerable. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 20 to 25% of the homeless population in the United States suffers from some form of severe mental illness. In comparison, only 6% of Americans are severely mentally ill.
However, in Marin County, the 2019 Point In Time Count brought some good news: homelessness among people with serious mental illness was down 40 percent and down 10 percent among people with substance-use disorders. This is in large part due to the county’s housing-first approach and coordinated system of outreach, rapid rehousing, and help provided by government and non-profit agencies working together in a Continuum of Care.
Community Action Marin has three mobile homeless outreach teams as part of the county’s network. Called, Community Alternative Response and Engagement (CARE) Teams, these mobile units are dedicated to offering peer support to those experiencing mental health challenges and homelessness. They provide trusted connections in community, help with immediate needs, transport as necessary to the agency’s drop-in services, and coordinate with other providers across the county. Here is a vignette sharing the story of one of our team’s newest members.
Staff Spotlight: Debra Walker
It’s a cool and foggy morning when Debra Walker from CARE Team III pulls her van into a nearly deserted parking lot in Novato. Due to the COVID-19 Shelter in Place there is no early morning traffic. The van is new and has not yet been branded with Community Action Marin logos, but when Debra opens the back hatch and the sliding door, people begin to emerge from the mist, clearly expecting that she would be there. Debra has a supply of socks for those in need, and she greets everyone by name as they walk up.
Debra is the newest member of Community Action Marin’s CARE Teams (Community Alternative Response and Engagement). She is a bundle of energy, pulling clothes baskets from the van as she explains that with sobriety came weight gain, so she is sharing clothes that no longer fit with those who can use them. As one gentleman approaches the van Debra admonishes him, “You need to have a mask, Honey,” and digs in to her stores to find the right size. His age and health don’t qualify him for a motel voucher, so Debra has promised him a tent, which she hands off with the mask and gloves. Another woman has arrived and Debra directs her to the clothes, telling her to take whatever she wants, explaining that the woman is looking for a job and needs interview outfits.
In another moment, Debra shares that she’s meeting later with an outreach worker from the Spahr Center for a woman they are hoping to get into a detox center. As she buzzes around the van, handing out supplies and social distancing advice, Debra shares that she is moving into her own apartment this week. As she describes her new home she turns to the woman looking through clothes and says “Hey, I did it! Never give up, if I can do this so can you.”
How did you become involved with Community Action Marin?
I got involved with the agency while getting my education taking the course through a program that trains people to become peer providers. When Laurel Hill, the agency’s VP of Mental Health Services, came to do a presentation for our class and talked about all the different resources that Community Action Marin offers and the job opportunities available, I knew that that would be for me.
How has working at the agency impacted you personally?
Through my life experience, going from addiction to incarceration then graduating from an intensive outpatient program and finding myself having to be housed in a shelter and then transitional housing, I knew that I could be a great benefit to the agency and the clients that we work with. I was able to secure CalFresh and Medi-Cal working with coaches, and I was able to improve my opportunities to secure employment. I almost feel like I became an expert in our county by learning and going through all the channels to find out whatever resources that would work for me and even for others to better one’s life.
Also, I first learned of the agency’s programs when I was a resident at the New Beginnings Homeward Bound program, from January 2018 up until very recently. I got registered with the Economic Opportunity program so I could get help to clean up my credit. As I had thought this would be an impossible feat, I soon came to believe and realize that not only was it a possibility, but that I was able to go from a very low credit score to a credit score that has afforded me the ability to rent and secure an apartment and build on a new secure independent future.
My employment with Community Action Marin has truly changed my life. It has provided me a sense of purpose. It has improved my health and my happiness counteracting the effects of stress, anger, and anxiety. It has completely changed my life on a path of true success. I am able to learn every day different tools and opportunities to empower myself and others. I feel absolutely blessed and honored to work with the professionals in Marin County from every agency all the resources that have become available to the vulnerable folks in our community it has been a blessing. Before leaving on her rounds in the van again, she notes:
“Hey, you can’t tell with the mask, but I am totally smiling. I love this job, I feel like everything I have gone through prepared me to do this work. I love it! I’m so grateful I was given the chance to do this work!”