Mourning Robin Williams and the Impact of Mental Illness 

Robin Williams in the 1991 film, The Fisher King.

Robin Williams has died. He is presumed to have taken his own life.

The man who made us laugh until we hurt with his outrageous characters Daniel Hillard/Mrs. Euphegenia Doubtfire in Mrs. Doubtfireand Armand Goldman in Birdcage, also made us cry with his portrayal of therapist Dr. Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting, and with his depiction of an inspiring English professor with a student who commits suicide in Dead Poet’s Society.

What does the death of Robin Williams have to do with preventing and ending homelessness?  More than you might think.

I have been a huge Robin Williams fan since “meeting” him as the space alien Mork in the sitcom Happy Days. I never missed one of his movies and seldom missed an opportunity to see him being interviewed on talk shows, though the interviewer was usually in control of the segment for only a few seconds until the genius of Robin Williams took over. It seemed this brilliant man never had middle ground; he was either the funniest person on the planet or the most heart wrenching character in a movie, but he was never just average. Robin Williams was never normal – whatever that is. Robin Williams had a diagnosis of  Bipolar Disorder, a mental illness that people used to call Manic Depressive. He had periods of the highest highs (the mania) and then he had periods of the lowest lows (the depression). He struggled with substance abuse, and from this layman’s viewpoint, that substance use was probably an attempt to self-medicate, an attempt to quiet the demons that mercilessly drove him.

Many of our citizens experiencing homelessness have a mental illness, but few of them grew up in wealth as Robin Williams did. Not many of them have the opportunity to channel their illness into creative greatness honed by several years of study at Julliard like Robin Williams. Few of them have the mandatory medical and psychological care available that will identify the appropriate combination of medicine and therapy to control the extremes of their disorder. Many have alienated (because of their illness) the systems of friends and family vital to their support when they are cycling through the outer limits of emotion. Our citizens can become homeless when they can no longer maintain a home and lack an adequate support system, often because of the ravages of mental illness. Robin Williams simply acted the part of Parry, a mentally ill homeless man in The Fisher King. However, Williams’ portrayal of homelessness must have been spot-on since the 1991 role earned him a Best Actor nomination.

Robin Williams plays Parry, a man experiencing homelessness and living with a severe mental illness, in The Fisher King.  In this scene, Parry tells the mythology of the Fisher King — a relevant story that can be applied to acknowledging the suffering experienced with mental illness and the healing that can happen with adequate support and care from others.

Because of the death and apparent suicide of Robin Williams, the internet is full of “information” about Mr. Williams: his professed addiction, his acknowledged mental illness, and speculations about both his life and his death. For reliable information on mental illness, you can research The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and read their publications on Bipolar Disorder and on SuicideScholarly articles on the link between Mental Illness and Homelessness have been available for many years; we know that at least 30% of our people who live in bus stations, in sewer tunnels, in camps in the woods and in other places unfit for human habitation suffer from a severe mental illness.  If we know about this link, why aren’t we doing more about it?  The AL.com post from this morning is just one short thought on Mental Illness, Homelessness and State funding of Mental Health services.

Robin Williams is far from being the only celebrity with Bipolar Disorder; some of the more creative ones include Russell Brand, Kurt Cobain, Carrie Fisher, Larry Flynt, Jesse Jackson Jr., Jackson Pollock, Charley Pride, Robert Schumann, Frank Sinatra, Sidney Sheldon, Britnay Spears, Amy Winehouse and Virginia Woolf. I could also name many of the street homeless with Bipolar Disorder, and you would know their faces, but you would never know their names because, to most people, the street people don’t have names. Turns out that mental illness really doesn’t care if you have money and fame  and an Academy Award or if you have nothing, live under an overpass and your unkempt face is known only as “that lazy bum:”  suicide takes everyone.

For a person who struggles with mental illness, their condition deserves to be treated seriously and with respect and compassion — by their closest friends and family, their neighbors, their communities, and their health care professionals.  That support, from every side, is priceless and can mean the difference between a life of fulfilled potential and personal growth or a life of suffering, estrangement, fear, and, unfortunately, suicide.   Sometimes that support can mean the difference between a life in housing and a life in homelessness.  In our community, agencies like UAB REACT and JBS Mental Health, among many of our other agencies that provide emergency services to people in need, these service providers become the support system for seriously mentally ill individuals who have no one else.

I mourn the loss of Robin Williams and I mourn each of the 423 severely mentally ill people experiencing homelessness who also call our community home.

This blog post was written by Michelle Farley, Executive Director of One Roof. 

For support, please remember that anyone experiencing suicidal ideation or emotional distress can call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline or our local crisis line.

Education = Safer Spaces

Photo taken as part of LIHCA’s Home is… campaign.  Currently LIHCA is working to secure dedicated revenue for the Alabama Housing Trust Fund.  To learn more, click here.

Education = Safer Spaces

by Joshua Helms

Since September of 2013, I’ve served as an AmeriCorps member at One Roof through the YWCA of Central Alabama’sBuilding Communities, Bettering Lives program. I joined AmeriCorps because I want to make the world a better place for all people. Serving at One Roof has allowed me to do this and to make real and positive change. I’ve spent a lot of my time this year trying to make spaces safer for everyone in our community, especially those experiencing, or at-risk for experiencing, homelessness. I believe that safer spaces ensure that each person is treated with dignity and respect, and this is exceedingly important for community members in vulnerable situations. Many folks experiencing homelessness in our community lack safety, stability, and an adequate support system: in short, they lack a safe space to call home. These community members deserve to be treated with dignity and respect; they deserve a safe place to call home.

Since September I’ve attended monthly meetings of the Magic City Acceptance Project (MCAP), a coalition of community volunteers, social workers, service providers, and students working to better meet the needs of LGBTQ+ youth in the Birmingham area. I’ve also attended monthly meetings of the Birmingham Home Host Program, a committee of MCAP working to secure safe housing options for LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness. As a representative of One Roof, I’ve networked with advocates, strengthened efforts to provide safe and inclusive spaces for youth experiencing homelessness, and provided insight, research, and statistics used to educate others on the issue.

Before AmeriCorps, I completed an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Alabama, where I taught composition, creative writing, and literature courses to undergraduate students. Serving at One Roof has allowed me to use my background as an educator to further One Roof’s mission. This year I educated community members about youth homelessness, especially issues related to LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness, and empowered young people to make real differences in their communities. A few highlights:

These presentations focused on ways for advocates to help prevent and end youth homelessness. I encouraged participants to join local efforts and coalitions, reach out to schools, churches, governments, and use the information and statistics provided by One Roof to make lasting changes in their communities. You can check out the presentations here and here.

One Roof’s mission is to equip and empower our community to prevent and end homelessness through advocacy, education, and the coordination of services. We strongly believe that each of these components is vital, that preventing and ending homelessness must be a coordinated community effort. We take every opportunity to educate the community on issues related to homelessness because we believe that education equips and empowers folks to make positive changes in their community. We believe that education about homelessness allows our community to overcome stereotypes and barriers, recognize the institutions that enforce oppression, and make spaces safer for everyone.  Education can lead to a community where every person has a safe place to call home — whether through safer relationships, a community that is mindful about fair housing policies, or a community that simply stands behind and supports the agencies that can offer those safe spaces, those homes.

This year has changed my life for the better. The opportunity to educate community members, to see increased efforts to prevent and end homelessness, to use my skill set in a way that truly helps others and makes our community a better, safer place, has been invaluable to me.  I’ve felt seen and heard and, in return, have bettered efforts to make sure that community members experiencing homelessness feel seen, heard, and safe.

To learn more about serving as an AmeriCorps with One Roof, visit our website.  The YWCA of Central Alabama partners with different agencies across Birmingham (including One Roof) to offer more than 30 different service opportunities to individuals looking to make Birmingham a better place.  Click here for information on how to apply; the program starts the first week of September.  

Josh Helms is an AmeriCorps member serving at One Roof as the Capacity Building Assistant.

Help End Homelessness:  Community Awareness, Coordination, and Service

Help End Homelessness:  Community Awareness, Coordination, and Service

IMG_1022by John McGregor

Last fall, when I began my AmeriCorps term of service with One Roof, I was introduced to our three-tiered approach for preventing and ending homelessness: advocacy, education, and coordination of services. I helped coordinate two of One Roof’s major annual events, Point-in-Time and Project Homeless Connect, and saw the work that One Roof does daily to assist people in housing crisis with finding the service providers most appropriate for them. Like most people who have never worked with people experiencing homelessness, I was in need of education about the causes of homelessness and what can be done to prevent and end homelessness. Right now I am finishing up my year of service by assisting the Street Outreach Program (STOP) at the Firehouse Shelter, a One Roof member agency that serves men experiencing homelessness. Much of what I’ve learned this year about homelessness and poverty within our community has been fully illuminated by spending time with the Street Outreach Team on the streets of Birmingham and at The Firehouse Shelter.

STOP Program Coordinator (and One Roof board member) Nicole Arlain works to connect those living on the street with the programs at Firehouse and with community resources throughout Jefferson County. Along with Dena Dickerson, the only other staff member working full time on street outreach, Nicole visits places most service providers cannot. The path to guiding those living on the street in Birmingham to stable housing often begins under a bridge or in an abandoned building, where Street Outreach visits build trust and relationships in order to assist those that are in need. This is a huge task when you consider that Firehouse is one of the only agencies actively doing street outreach in Birmingham.

Nicole and Dena understand something that One Roof staff members have stressed to me since my service began: a major barrier to the success of agency programs is too often a lack of awareness about community resources. Homelessness can only be ended through a coordinated community effort involving not only service providers, but businesses, churches, and individual community members as well. Businesses only a few blocks from the shelter may not be aware that contacting STOP is a more sustainable alternative to having the police arrest someone they feel is disrupting their business. Locking someone up in an overcrowded jail for living on the street is not sustainable because it perpetuates homelessness and poverty and wastes valuable community resources. STOP gives clients the guidance and care that will empower them to stay off the street permanently. But despite all the direct efforts of program staff at Firehouse and the coordination efforts at One Roof, people will continue to fall through the cracks if the community is not aware that these agencies and services exist.

Over the past year of serving as an Americorps member with One Roof and Firehouse, I have had the opportunity to see the full scope of what solving homelessness looks like in Birmingham.  Serving with the Firehouse Shelter has given me a richer perspective on my service with One Roof.  Partnerships between direct service agencies like Firehouse and coordinating agencies like One Roof empower patient, hardworking people to make lasting changes for those in need; changes that, in some cases, may literally save someone’s life. In my service with both agencies, I have been able to see the entire journey it takes for someone to leave homelessness — from a client taking their first step off the street by spending a night in emergency shelter, to moving into Firehouse’s transitional housing, to individuals who have progressed to living in their own homes and returning to the Firehouse as an employee or volunteer.

Please help One Roof and all of its agencies by taking time to learn and spread the word about programs like STOP.  Help Firehouse empower people to get off the streets by raising awareness of their programs and services. One Roof and our member agencies are dedicated to preventing and ending homelessness in central Alabama through advocacy, education, and the coordination of services. Ending homelessness is a community effort and we cannot do this without you. Educate yourself and educate your fellow community members about the agencies and services in our community. Help us end homelessness.


John McGregor is an AmeriCorps member serving at One Roof as the Communications & Community Outreach Assistant and is completing his year of service with the Firehouse Shelter’s Street Outreach team. He served with the Marine Corps Reserve Unit in Bessemer from 2004-2010 and deployed twice to Iraq.


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