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.

Best Practices for Helping People Experiencing Homelessness

Best Practices for Helping People Experiencing Homelessness

Volunteers assist Birmingham’s Community Kitchens, which serves lunch at both their Southside (St. Andrews) and Woodlawn (Grace Episcopal) locations. Photo taken from Community Kitchen Facebook photos*

At One Roof, we are dedicated to our mission of equipping and empowering our community to prevent and end homelessness through advocacy, education, and the coordination of services. To further our mission, we research and advocate for the most effective ways to empower people experiencing homelessness (PEH) in our community to leave homelessness forever. We particularly appreciate what Liz Hixson, Volunteer Coordinator and Development Associate at Pathways (a local agency serving homeless women and children), has to say about this very important issue:

Dr. Ruby Payne, a leading expert on the mindsets of different economic classes and overcoming poverty, explains that poverty occurs due to a lack of resources: financial, emotional, mental, spiritual, physical, support systems, relationship, and knowledge of hidden rules. All of these areas contribute to poverty, not just a lack of food or money. When people address only these two surface issues, is it possible that we are actually hurting the very people we so desperately desire to help? (Read more here: Enabling or Empowering?: Considering How We Help the Homeless)

We love how Hixson asks our community to consider the difference between what enables a person experiencing homelessness and what empowers them. Here are our suggestions to help empower people experiencing homelessness in our community:

If someone approaches you asking for help (including money), offer information. In our continuum, this means you can give them One Roof’s phone number (254-8833) and we can make an appropriate referral. You can also learn the appropriate resources for immediate assistance:  

  • First Light Shelter — First Light provides shelter, food, case management, and other resources to women and women with children experiencing homelessness. They are located at the intersection of 23rd Street and 4th Avenue North.

  • Pathways —  Pathways has a day center open to women and children in need of clothing, food, laundry, and showering facilities, as well as contact with case managers. They are located on Richard Arrington Blvd. between 4th and 5th Avenue North.

  • Firehouse Shelter — Firehouse offers a day shelter, meals, emergency shelter, access to case management, and many other services to men experiencing homelessness, including opportunities for transitional and permanent supportive housing. They are located at 3rd Avenue and 15th Street North.

  • Salvation Army — Salvation Army offers emergency shelter, transitional housing, substance abuse treatment, access to case management, and many other services to men, women, and families experiencing homelessness. They are located at 2130 11th Avenue North.

  • Church of the Reconciler — Church of the Reconciler serves many people who are literally homeless in Birmingham.  They offer support groups, several public meals, and assistance with applications for important needs like housing and healthcare.  Reconciler also has a regular medical clinic through UAB Equal Access.  They are located at 2nd Avenue and 14th Street North.

Suggestion: Learn about agencies serving your community and what they need.  One Roof member agencies work tirelessly to serve people in housing crisis, and supporting these organizations means they can take better care and offer better support to those members of our community.

Think twice before providing food to people experiencing homelessness in public outdoor spaces such as parks and under bridges. Without access to bathrooms and proper sanitation, public feeding becomes a health issue for PEH.  By partnering with an agency or Magic City Harvest, you can cut down on waste, prevent people from getting sick due to food contamination, and take a step toward empowering someone to leave homelessness.  Feeding in parks and under bridges does not offer that person who is homeless the dignity that they deserve, and it enables someone who needs help to stay on the street.  For more information on this issue, take a look at this blog post written by One Roof’s Executive Director, Michelle Farley.

Suggestion:If you want to prevent and end homelessness in Birmingham by offering a meal, join the coordinated efforts that already exist to offer sustenance to people experiencing homelessness.  Shelters often want that help with serving a meal!

Think twice before giving money to someone who is panhandling. Panhandling is a tool for survival,  but it’s also a method that enables someone to stay homeless.  There is no shortage of agencies serving public meals. Quite often, mental illness is a contributing factor to the vulnerability of people experiencing homelessness.  Unfortunately, this means that money (understandably) will sometimes go toward methods for coping, including substances that are abused.  We ask that community members think about truly sustainable ways to give money, such as supporting agencies who provide direct services that empower PEH to gain stability. By giving $10 to a PEH, are you truly helping that person into a home with the stability, care, and decent housing that every person deserves?  Probably not.

Suggestion:Supporting emergency shelters like First Light, Salvation Army, and Firehouse means that those agencies have the tools and community support that they need to empower PEH in Birmingham to leave  homelessness forever.

Stay informed about issues related to homelessness and housing.  By educating yourself on the need and the services that already exist in the community, and using your voice to advocate for better access to housing in Alabama, you can make a difference.  For example, you can use your voice to advocate for a secured, dedicated revenue source to go to the Alabama Housing Trust Fund or volunteer to conduct interviews with One Roof during Point-in-Time 2015.

One Roof is dedicated to equipping and empowering our community to prevent and end homelessness in central Alabama through advocacy, education, and coordination of services. Ending homelessness in central Alabama requires a coordinated community effort and we cannot do this without you. For more suggestions on how you can prevent and end homelessness in Alabama, feel free to contact us by phone (205-254-8833) or e-mail (info@oneroofonline.org). Be sure to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram to stay informed.

Accidents Will Happen: The Need for Respite Care in Central Alabama

Firehouse accident 5.28.14

                                                                                                                                                            (photo courtesy of al.com)

There was a car accident in front of the Firehouse Shelter this morning and four men were injured in that accident. Of course my first thought was hope that everyone involved will be ok…but when I learned that the four men had been taken to the hospital, I began to wonder about something else–something I might not have been concerned about had the four men not been standing in front of an emergency shelter for men.

If their injuries are severe, where can they go for rehabilitation?  You see, we really don’t have many choices for people who are homeless when they are not sick enough to keep in a hospital but yet they are too sick to release them to the streets.

I don’t know yet about the extent of injuries for these men, but I have been informed that 3 of the 4 will need surgery. I’ve had two fairly major surgeries in my life; one was outpatient and the other required several days of hospitalization. For the outpatient surgery, I couldn’t be released without someone to “take me home.” When I got home, I went to bed and for several days afterwards had someone help me with basic living skills like bathing and preparing meals. With the inpatient surgery, the release was much the same…hospital released me to go home and rest and I was only released because I had someone at home who could care for me. I was lucky enough to have plenty of medical insurance, but what if these men don’t?  Hospitals can not afford to keep uninsured people indefinitely.

What happens for these men who probably call the Firehouse Emergency Shelter home? None of our emergency shelters are set up to accommodate much in the way of specialized medical care…not really even extended “rest.” There are individual beds for clients, but they are not in individual rooms, and sleeping in a common area with 50 or so other people in crisis really doesn’t contribute to a great deal of rest. Our local shelters make certain clients are offered 2 – 3 meals per day, but there is no one to prepare special meals. In several of our emergency shelters, volunteers prepare a meal for 50+ people and bring it to the shelter, and while that is generally a tasty meal, clients are certainly not asked what their taste preference is for that meal, and few individual dietary restrictions are observed.

With each of my surgeries, I was instructed to keep the incision “clean and dry,” and doing that required assistance to keep the dressing dry when I bathed and required assistance to change the dressing when necessary. Again, our emergency shelters are simply not equipped with extra staff members to help with bathing or changing a dressing. It is not because shelter staff don’t want to help, but they are responsible for the care and safety of 50 or more people at any given time…

Our community needs emergency shelters…but we also need something called Respite Care, and we have none. Consider taking a look at Center for Respite Care or this medical journal article or this Respite Care in Philadelphia, or this piece from the University of California.

Until we get Respite Care here, my sincere hope is that you will think about a time you needed extra attention when you were sick, whether that was with an accident or a surgery or just a nasty cold. Now focus those thoughts and feelings on the situation of these four men at the Firehouse Shelter…

One last thing…think about what our community could look like if there was a home available for everyone who wanted one…


Michelle Farley

Executive Director, One Roof

Volunteer Now to help end homelessness
Get help addressing a homeless situation

One Roof Events