The underbelly of America’s housing crisis has been exposed, and the intersectional crisis has revealed ways in which mental health support systems have failed the most vulnerable populations. Gaps in implementation service procedures have failed to provide adequate safeguards for the unhoused, and the climate crisis has exacerbated the issue with record-breaking heat adding to dangerous public health concerns.
Shame should befall any society that upholds systems benefiting only a few at the cost of the majority.
In 2022, Colorado reported the sixth-highest voter turnout in the nation, passing measures that provided much-needed funding for sustainable and affordable housing and outreach programs. This speaks to the character of Colorado’s voters, who are awaiting efforts that are adequately matched. Many are examining the visibly worsening issue of homelessness despite promises of change and asking, “How much hypocrisy can people possibly endure?”
With data showing increases in the rate of individuals suffering from poor mental health, there are growing concerns about the human cost of eviction amid a worsening economic landscape.
Mental health deficiencies can interrupt an individual’s entire life, often leading to poverty and disaffiliation. With the rising cost of living, it is imperative that protective measures are enacted to prevent further disenfranchisement among populations who are experiencing significant psychological impairment.
Employment is one of the major components involved in homelessness prevention. However, according to a 2021 study published by the University of Chicago, many unhoused individuals manage to maintain jobs. The study, which observed homeless individuals between 2011 and 2018, showed that as much as 53% of people in homeless shelters and 40% of unsheltered people held full or part-time jobs. When mental health is factored into the equation, questions arise regarding the potential for long-term employment and self-sufficiency.
Mental health issues may prompt sudden, unexpected withdrawals from work, resources and other support systems. Prolonged mental illness issues can result in the creation of barriers that negatively impact an individual’s ability to be resilient and make decisions that support their well-being. Left untreated, mental illness can lead to a downward spiral which may ultimately lead to homelessness.
The cycle between homelessness and mental health is insidious. Being unhoused can contribute to a rapid decrease in already poor mental health conditions. With mental illness amplified, so are the risks of anxiety, substance abuse, violence and depression.
When it comes to the cost of homelessness, taxpayers save money when proper mental healthcare is accessible to the population that needs it most.
When financial catastrophe or mental illness results in the loss of one’s home, even small expenses create significant barriers to mental healthcare, resources and essential items. With limited access to state and federal programs such as Medicaid and insurance plans offered by the Affordable Care Act, the link between psychological setbacks and homelessness reflects a systematically tangled relationship. The devastating effects are perpetuated over time, with childhood homelessness contributing to increased rates of poverty, social trauma, and other avoidable issues.
The true cost of homelessness is human life. Eviction, and subsequent homelessness, are correlated with higher rates of mortality. Pre-existing conditions including chronic disease, respiratory illness, cancer, substance abuse and mental illness are intensified by worries concerning basic survival. The worst possible outcome of housing instability paired with poor physical and mental health is self-inflicted loss of life.
According to the Center for Disease Control and the National Institute for Mental Health, 46,000 lives were lost to suicide in 2020 alone. The National Alliance on Mental Illness has found that 46% of people who died by suicide were living with a known mental health condition.
In 2021, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 31.6% of adults are reportedly living with depression and anxiety. With a World Health Organization announcement indicating a 13% rise in mental health conditions and substance abuse disorders in the last decade, a mental health epidemic is a clear and unavoidable issue.
During the Covid pandemic, “Stay at Home,” mandates highlighted apathetic attitudes among lawmakers, with city, state and federal agencies ignoring the needs of people without a home to stay in. The National Homelessness Law Center platform spoke out against the egregious oversight saying, “It was immediately and abundantly clear that in attempting to manage the pandemic, the federal government and its state and local counterparts omitted entirely any consideration of individuals experiencing homelessness. That omission has resulted in homeless individuals being more likely to be infected by Covid-19, more likely to be hospitalized when they contract Covid-19, more likely to require critical care once hospitalized and more likely to die from Covid-19.”
An article published by The Denver Gazette produced data from the pandemic’s decline, showing an increase in homelessness. “There were at least 4,794 homeless people in Denver in January 2022, according to the most recent count. That’s up 44% from only five years prior.”
The threat of homelessness and mental health problems to the overall state of society reached a peak before the 2020 pandemic-related shutdowns, revealing an immediate need for solutions.
Addressing homelessness in the United States requires the examination of multiple systemic inequities. Housing for individuals has been commodified with tax credits that benefit developers. Meanwhile, the people most in need of financial bailouts face years-long waitlists for affordable housing and inadequate healthcare.
Despite the efforts of grassroots organizations and advocacy programs, fiduciary interests and obligations to stakeholders seem to have been prioritized before human life.
The city of Denver has poured significant resources into addressing issues around homelessness, spending almost a quarter of a billion dollars in 2023. In March, the city council approved several contracts and resolutions worth $17.8 million, and former Mayor Michael Hancock’s final adopted budget contained $254 million to deal with homelessness citywide.
New Mayor Mike Johnston made homelessness prevention a large part of his platform. The former senator built a plan that addresses “Lack of access to affordable housing, lack of mental health support, and the increase in addictive drugs.” Still, understanding homelessness and providing solutions for the unhoused is a complex process that requires systemic analysis, identification and the repair of multiple gaps.
In 2022, The Colorado General Assembly formed the Affordable Housing Transformational Task Force (AHTTF) to offer recommendations for spending $400 million allocated from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). These funds are designated to improving access to affordable housing across the state. In the 2023 legislative session, Colorado passed Senate Bill-082 providing housing vouchers and services to homeless youth 18-26 with prior foster care experience.
Colorado lawmakers are monitoring other states’ responses to homelessness, including South Carolina, Utah, and Connecticut’s mitigation of homelessness among individuals aging out of foster care. These states have implemented plans to increase accessibility to mental health care and social services for people transitioning out of foster care.
America is facing a crisis of epic proportions and must prioritize “Housing First” models to alleviate the devastating impact of recent events and economic inequity on mental health and homelessness. With an emphasis on culturally competent, community-based services that ensure financial independence and mental wellness, there is hope that one day everyone will have access to mental health and a home.