Path of doom starts with homelessness; Squalor 'breaks your heart'

Schizophrenia Update, December 2002

Windsor Star

October 10, 2002

BYLINE: Veronique Mandal Star Health-Science Reporter

Angela adjusts the grocery bag on her arm, unlocks the door to her schizophrenic son's bachelor apartment and enters a rat-infested hole. She cries. "We've complained to the landlord a hundred times but nothing gets done. It breaks our hearts and we want to take him home but he wants to make it on his own," says Angela, a Windsor mom. "He's not good at standing up for himself and his paranoia works against him because the landlord sees it and treats him like a dog. It's almost impossible for people like him to get a decent place to live that they can afford."

Angela's story is repeated thousands of times across Canada, illustrating the plight of the 25 to 60 per cent of the homeless who have a serious mental illness.

Their homelessness sets up a vicious cycle of psychotic events leading to hospitalization or incarceration, discharge to the streets and relapse.

"Without a proper home where they're stable, without someone to keep an eye on them and an opportunity to have self-worth, they're lost," said Wendy Forrest, a mental health court case manager in Toronto. "There are times when I visit a client and walk away in tears. It breaks your heart to see where many of them end up."

Canada's largest city has 62,000 on its subsidized housing waiting list, many of whom are mentally ill.

"There aren't even enough of the rat holes around let alone something that's fit for human habitation and the people most often stuck on the streets are the most seriously mentally ill," Forrest said.

The mentally ill, especially those with paranoid schizophrenia, often prefer the streets to sleeping in a room with a dozen other people and consider the street safer, she said.

In Windsor, where up to 50 mentally ill people per night are looking for a bed, Laura Bedard of the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario said many clients live in rest homes. They range from excellent to disgusting. About 11 private lodging homes house close to 400 residents.

"Some have bathrooms with no doors, some have co-ed bathrooms, substandard food and sleep two to six in a room," said Bedard. "We hear awful stories from people."

A major problem for the mentally ill is the way the government pays their disability pensions. If they are in a hospital or in jail waiting for a psychiatric assessment longer than 30 days, their pensions are cut off and they lose their room or apartment. They come out of hospital or jail and are forced back on the street.



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