Point in Time

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.

Point-in-Time 2014 Results

2014 PIT Tables

We are excited to share the results from the 2014 Point-in-Time study that was conducted in January. For a .PDF file of the data table and interpretation of results, click here.

We would like to extend a thank you, once again, to friends who conducted interviews with us this year as well as community members who have been involved with One Roof in the past.  Collecting this data cannot happen without you!  Make sure that when you’re reviewing the table you pay attention to the “unsheltered” count.  Point-in-Time volunteers are responsible for the total unsheltered count in our area!  Thank you for reaching out to 414 unsheltered individuals in our community so that we can better understand how to help.

The data in the table above gives a snapshot of who was homeless on any given night in 2005, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 in Jefferson, Shelby, and St. Clair counties of Alabama.  The Total numbers are comprised of the sheltered and unsheltered numbers added together.  2014 results are highlighted in purple.

Please note that the sub-populations stand alone and do not represent additional people to those listed in theIndividualsTotal Persons in Families, or Total Personsrows.  Sub-population numbers represent every instance where the sub-population applied to an individual.Families are the number of homeless households we have seen with dependent children, and Total Persons in Families is the number of individuals belonging to those households.

This year 120 volunteers helped to conduct the Point in Time survey in the metropolitan Birmingham area.  This is the second year we were able to expand street counts to include parts of Woodlawn, Avondale, East Lake, West End, and other neighborhoods outside of downtown.  Volunteers are responsible for the total unsheltered count (31% of the total homeless population).

The sheltered numbers come directly from a database used by our service providers called PromisAL, which records services and acts as a tool to connect services in our homeless Continuum of Care.

Here are some highlights that we can see in this year’s data: 

  • Our count in January 2014 shows that overall homeless numbers have decreased by 140 individuals (a decrease of 10%) since January 2013.  From 2005 to 2014, there has been a decrease of 1,099 individuals (nearly a 55% decrease).
  • Homeless families (households) increased slightly this year from 2013 by 6%. There was a 35% decrease in the number of unsheltered families, but there was a 35% increase in families living in transitional housing.  This shows that in the past year, almost 1 to 1 those families have gotten into housing and are on their way to living a stable life in permanent housing.
  •  For someone to be chronically homeless, they must have experienced 4 or more episodes of homelessness within 3 years OR experienced continual homeless for 1 or more years AND have a mental or physical disability.  This population is the hardest to house and often the least likely to seek services.  Since 2009, we have seen a 51% decrease in the number of chronically homeless individuals in our community.
  •  Homeless veterans have been steadily decreasing over the past few years, and this year is no exception.  There is a national initiative to end veteran homelessness by 2015, and the good news is that all the hard work of our veteran’s agencies has brought us very close.  This year, there was a 10% decrease in the number of veterans experiencing homelessness, with the majority of those veterans (156 out of 174 total) in shelter rather than on the street.
  •  Despite slightly elevated numbers of people living with HIV/AIDS and experiencing homelessness, the overall number of these individuals has declined significantly since 2005, decreasing by 67%
  • Unfortunately, we have seen elevated sheltered, unsheltered, and total numbers of community members who are survivors of domestic violence and experiencing homelessness. Since 2013, the number of survivors of domestic violence experiencing homelessness has had a pronounced increase of nearly 46%.
  • We are also pleased to see a decrease, however small, in the number of people experiencing homelessness who suffer from chronic substance abuse.  However, we have also seen a 7% total increase in the number of people with a serious mental illness (395 in 2013 to 423 in 2014), with a 30% increase in the number of people with a serious mental illness who are unsheltered.

Please let us know if you have any questions or suggestions for improving our process next year, and thank you for your patience while waiting for the results.  Thank you for helping us to fulfill our mission to equip and empower our community to prevent and end homelessness through advocacy, education, and coordination of services.   Thank you for your work to improve the community we share.

We hope you have a great summer and that we’ll see you next year for PIT 2015!


Stacy Oliver
Community Outreach Coordinator
One Roof
stacy@oneroofonline.org

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