Apr 26, 2015

Mental Illness and Homelessness: A Vicious Cycle

[Written as a final project for my winter quarter Journalism class -- March 13, 2015]

Dan (left) and Bonnie, out on State St. 

The common stereotype of the crazy homeless person muttering to themselves on a street-corner is rooted in real systematic oppression and neglect. It’s a zero-degree day in the Loop and three homeless men stand to warm themselves in front of a large vent on Van Buren St.: Longworth, Levi, and Stan. Stan is visibly drunk, speaking in short bursts with a bottle of vodka clutched in his mitten. As we walk away from the trio Bonnie McNulty, another homeless Chicagoan, says, “Stan was in rare form today.” Usually he walks down the street yelling at passers-by, but today he was able to self-medicate with alcohol to escape the schizophrenia he suffers from. He’s been on the streets with his friend Longworth since 1990.

Self-medication through alcohol and drugs is a common reaction among mentally ill homeless people to the lack of care they receive. Even if a homeless person gains access to psychiatric medication they will often not have regular therapy to go along with it; this causes them to go off their meds and seek comfort elsewhere. Bonnie, who was diagnosed at 13 with bipolar disorder and later with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), has had this experience. A lack of therapy also means that she was unable to manage the bad reactions she’s had to medication. She says, “Lithium is not a very friendly drug.” The lack of support caused her to go off her medication entirely – it wasn’t helping and only made her feel “like a zombie.”

Bonnie says that she understands why some people with mental illness are averse to taking medication at all. For schizophrenic people who hear voices, “It’s comforting to have a conversation with somebody every day. Nobody wants to be alone.” She once gave a slice of pizza to another homeless woman who then proceeded to talk animatedly into an empty storefront window for half an hour.

She describes another woman she knew who slept under a bridge for eight months, refusing to take money from anyone or go to a shelter, remaining sedentary outside until her legs swelled up and turned black. The woman had an untreated mental illness. It is much more difficult to deal with mental illness while also trying to survive on the street. As Bonnie describes her bipolar disorder, “It’s like that Norman Rockwell painting with the man selling balloons, only each balloon is a thought. He’s somehow let go of the balloons and is grabbing at them all, trying to catch them.”

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, 20-25 percent of homeless people in the United States suffer from a severe mental illness. In an effort to address homelessness itself, Obama proposed a $301 million increase in the housing budget – but it stalled in Congress. While providing housing is an immediate prerogative in fighting homelessness, it has been shown that mental health counseling services help to ensure that people can keep those homes. Too often a vicious cycle is created by lack of treatment, the result of which is a life spent in and out of shelters, hospitals, psych wards, jails, and other institutions that do not provide ongoing care.

Diagram from “Mental Illness and Homelessness,” by Mieke Dale-Harris of Econintersect LLC. Copyright 2013.  

Growing up underprivileged with a dysfunctional home life will also predispose a mentally ill person to homelessness. Levi, also warming himself by the Van Buren vent, is a former member of the Chicago gang, Gangster Disciples. He says, “I’m a product of Larry Hoover [the founder of GD]! I come from a 16-story project and I didn’t have no mom or dad. They were my mom and dad.” It is difficult to diagnose mental illness at a glance but Levi was manic and paranoid, spitting out his words and not wanting to say his last name out loud because he “don’t trust [his] friends.” Bonnie suspects that he has PTSD and possibly schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, and PTSD are the most common afflictions among homeless people. The prevalence of mental illness is not a new phenomenon, dating back to the policies of the Reagan era. Karl Nass, Associate Director of the Vincentian Community Service Office at DePaul University, says that, “It has to do with the history of deinstitutionalization. Funds were not in place once folks were let go from mental hospitals, often into unsafe urban environments, and their conditions were exacerbated.”

He says that he is “saddened and angry with the lack of funding,” but “hopeful about change from activists and advocates.” He also says that housing needs to be offered in conjunction with counseling services – “Research has shown that an integrated, holistic response seems to be wisest.” Karl teaches a course at DePaul on homelessness in which he strives to alter students’ preconceptions about homeless people. He remembers that when he worked at his first shelter as an undergraduate in Madison, WI, his own notions about homeless people were completely altered as a result of simply interacting with them. Once stereotypes are broken, simple human compassion can come through.

Bonnie and her friend Dan Rusick often stick together on the streets. Dan is not mentally ill himself, although he has seen its effects first-hand. In a Starbucks he points out a violent schizophrenic homeless boy who once took food from Bonnie by force. He says that he isn’t close to many other homeless people because you need to protect yourself. “All we have is what we own on our body and our word. And then somebody breaks it – after that, it’s hard to trust anybody else.”

Many of Chicago’s homeless people struggle unaided with mental disorders, but all of them have vibrant inner lives that can only be guessed at by those who drop quarters into their cups. On the walk to Harold Washington Library to use the public bathroom (one of the few he has access to), Dan tells me how he loves to escape into books – in a way, his own positive form of self-medication. His favorite author is William S. Burroughs. He says, “I probably am depressed, but I won’t let myself get depressed. It’s there, around the corner.”

This is Dan looking "normal." He told me that when he takes off all his layers, his well-worn coat, people would treat him better because he doesn't "look" homeless. 


Feb 18, 2015

Pączki-Eating Competition on Valentine's Day


This Valentine’s Day I found myself standing in a small crowd outside Bennison’s Bakery in Evanston watching eight men and boys compete in a pączki-eating contest. Mothers stood with babies and toddlers to cheer on their fathers, bundled against the icy, lacerating wind.  Plump pastries – in flavors of strawberries and cream, chocolate, praline mousse, prune, apple, apricot, cream cheese, or bananas and cream – are rapidly consumed down the line of tables as the crowd cheers, laughs, and murmurs “Oh my Lord…”

A pączki – pronounced “poosh-key” or “pawnch-key,” depending on who you ask – is a rich Polish donut with jam or cream filling. They’re truly wonderful, something that Bennison’s Bakery has specialized in since its opening in 1938. Bennison’s is packed and bustling today with orders for Valentine’s Day and Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday is known as Pączki Day in some circles, after all.) The atmosphere is warm and intimate inside, with four coffee pots piping on burners behind the counter and the scent of baking sugar mingling with easy-listening jazz in the air.

Outside, things are a little colder and harsher but no less convivial. The competition is varied; some chew determinedly and take time to swallow, while others cram fistfuls of pastry into their mouths in between slugs of water. Patrick, a habitual competitive eater, eats with two hands bloodied by strawberry filling. After the five minutes are up, he is declared the winner with 25 pączki. Patrick then bites with exaggerated nonchalance into yet another pączki, to laughter and the soft thudding of mittened applause.

This is Bennison’s 6th Annual Pączki-Eating Contest, and one of today’s competitors was in fact the winner of the first. This year he brought along his 10-year-old son, Kyle, to compete with him as a team. Before the competition, Kyle predicted that he would eat three pączki and that’s exactly what he did. The other competitors ranged from lanky twenty-somethings to middle-aged men.

All proceeds from the competition will go to Phil’s Friends, a cancer support charity. Each contestant was sent home with a t-shirt, a Bennison’s gift card, and as many pączki as they could carry.

Feb 4, 2015

Hardships for Homeless Chicagoans


Although Chicago winters are brutal for everybody, they hit the homeless the hardest. Bonnie has been homeless for 8 years, in DuPage County and her native Chicago, and recently had her backpack stolen. She had four blankets in there, to wear in addition to her multiple shirts and jacket. That was right on State Street, where she has been sitting out tonight for 2 hours and has made $1.45.

“Have a great night, enjoy your weekend!” Bonnie makes a point of never directly aggressively asking passers-by for money. “I don’t want pity money,” she says. Her cardboard sign reads, “Homeless single mom trying to get a room + meal, Please help $22 will get a room! Thank you + God bless you!

Some of the shelters she uses are Casa Central Shelter, Thresholds, Grace Place, and Safe Haven. Bonnie says that homeless people should stay away from Pacific Garden Mission in the South Loop – a place notorious for assault, theft, and mandatory Bible study. Many of these organizations have street teams that walk outside looking for homeless people to invite to warming centers. They also offer food, blankets, and “goodie bags” of basic essentials like socks and toothpaste.

Last winter Bonnie stayed at O’Hare from January to April. “They were actually very kind,” she says, provided that the homeless people there followed the rules and kept themselves clean (one of the biggest difficulties of living on the street.) Laughing, she told me that she had scabies that year and locked the door to an O'Hare bathroom so she could take a bath -- sneaking some well-deserved, necessary self-care time. She has also slept in police stations and hospitals overnight.

Money is not the only difficulty in finding a shelter for the night. Bonnie said, “It’s really unfortunate, but there aren’t many rooms for women. There are more for men.” One of her main priorities in finding a place to stay is keeping her 11-year-old daughter safe. Her name is Alexis and “she’s the light of [her] life.” She never takes Alexis out with her when she tries to gather money because, as she says, “Some people exploit their children that way.” On the night I talked with her, Alexis was staying with her grandmother.

Bonnie’s faith in God has kept her going through the years. She was diagnosed with cancer in 2009 and has since had 9 surgeries. The doctors originally gave her only a year to live. “I gave it all to God. I don’t know if you believe in God, but I sure do.”

She told me, “A lot of people think we did this to ourselves, and that it will never happen to them... You wouldn’t believe how many homeless people there are in Chicago. And they [other people] look at you like you’re dirt under their shoe.” Bonnie is currently applying for government disability payments. But until then, she is unable to work and lives on the streets. She survives through her own perseverance, ingenuity, and the charity of others.

“I would love to work. I would love to work. It’s really hard to sit out here.”

If you or someone you know needs help staying warm on the streets, call the Illinois Department of Human Services at (800) 843-6154. You can also dial 311 to request a ride to a shelter or neighborhood warming center.