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Out of institutions and needing shelter

By TextVictoria Irwin / February 25, 1986



PEOPLE like Clarence Brister Jr. can be found in almost any city in America. He is tall, good looking, pleasant, and polite when approached. But Clarence, a Vietnam veteran, is obviously homeless.

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And he would probably also be diagnosed as mentally ill. Standing along a road in Memphis, Clarence leans against his grocery cart, filled to overflowing with newspapers, plastic bags full of blankets, and assorted personal items. He says he sleeps under a nearby expressway -- adding that some of the missions offering shelter are stealing the money contributed to them.

Clarence points to ``arrows'' in the sky and wonders that no one else in Memphis sees them. ``I can tell you that they are not US,'' he adds.

Clarence says he is trying to get to Washington to see his family. But, like thousands of homeless, mentally disturbed individuals, Clarence does not appear to be going anywhere.

``The streets have become the mental asylums of the '80s,'' says Rodger K. Farr of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.

Often, the most visible of the homeless in the United States are people with mental problems. Estimates vary, but most experts say 30 to 50 percent of the homeless fall into this category.

Some of these people are former patients at mental institutions who were discharged during the movement to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill in favor of treatment in community settings. In 1955, approximately 560,000 people lived in public mental hospitals. By 1980, there were only 120,000. And experts point out that as the population has increased, so has the number of those needing care. Some, particularly the young who have mental-health problems, have never spent long terms in hospitals, but may have been admitted for short visits on an emergency basis.

Experts note that two groups are heavily represented in that portion of the homeless population which is judged to have mental difficulties: Vietnam veterans and single women without children. (One estimate for the Los Angeles skid-row area is that 90 percent of the homeless women have mental problems.)

Critics say these people are victims of a system that has set them adrift. One reason deinstitutionalization has backfired, according to some experts, is that the money previously spent on large institutions never followed the mentally ill out into the community as intended. Budget cutting has also had an impact. An advocate for improved mental-health services in California estimates that mental-health programs there have lost 40 percent of their funding since 1967.

Community health centers that were set up during deinstitutionalization often dealt only with mental-health issues and were not prepared to handle questions of housing, jobs, or training people to adapt to independent living. In addition, these centers were frequently located far from areas where the poor congregated -- areas with cheap room and board.

Though many people with mental difficulties are able to function on their own in society, those who can't are clustered in shelters, train depots, libraries, and under bridges.

In Seattle, Ken Cole, director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center, estimates that 40 percent of the people in his shelter have at least one significant symptom of mental illness. The shelter, which currently serves 200 people a night, is able to employ three mental health workers, and someone is on duty 24-hours a day.

But many smaller shelters, especially those run by nonprofit groups or churches, cannot maintain full-time workers in their facilities.

Lee sits in a spare-looking room at the Memphis Union Mission. He and two dozen others, mostly men, sit through a mandatory 30-minute prayer meeting led by a preacher. After reading from the Bible, the preacher asks if anyone is ready to ``call on the Lord.'' A few raise their hands.

Lee asks a few questions, saying he liked what the preacher said, but isn't God a personal thing, and doesn't man come to God in his own time? As the others shift in their seats, obviously ready for the free lunch at the end of the sermon, the preacher says the questions can be discussed later.

The lunch does not get rave reviews from the guests -- Lee laughs that the bread turns up at the edges like an old plank -- but they eat the sandwiches nonetheless. Lee says he stopped in the mission when he saw the sign for a free lunch. An out-of-work Vietnam veteran, Lee says he left his job with the Postal Service because they believe he has psychiatric problems.