Esposito: We're not prepared to help mentally ill homeless

When most people think of the homeless, often they are flooded with images of a dirty old man in tattered clothes who looks like Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, pushing his junk – his whole world – in a banged up shopping cart.

When they complete the picture, they may spot a bottle wrapped in a greasy bag in his coat pocket, and notice that he is carrying on a heated conversation with no one in particular.

In Chicago, Thresholds’ Mobile Assessment Unit (MAU) works with men and women, some of whom may fit this description, on the periphery of society, struggling with homelessness, mental illness, trauma and, often, substance abuse. The staff of the MAU do noble work, riding trains to find the mentally ill homeless. They go to emergency rooms and police precincts, engaging these folks in services, starting with a friendly conversation, a meal, perhaps clothes and, ultimately, medical and psychiatric care.

We don’t have a program in McHenry County such as the MAU, and folks might argue that it’s because we don’t have “that” kind of homelessness in our affluent county. If you ask the volunteers at your local PADS church site, or the various shelters throughout the county, you would find that they would beg to differ.

I admit, the stereotypical homeless person isn’t often seen on our streets, but we have our share of homeless individuals suffering from mental illness. Maybe they aren’t as desperate as Aqualung, but they are in need. Unfortunately, the emergency shelters and PADS sites are ill prepared to manage these hardest-to-serve members of our community. Still, they try.

Homeless individuals who struggle with mental illness often find it difficult to live in shelters. Their behaviors often negatively affect other guests, so they are asked to leave. Perhaps they get hospitalized, or, worse, incarcerated. Unfortunately, there is no place for them to go at discharge, so they end up back in the streets, repeating a cycle of stabilization and deterioration.

Pioneer’s PADS program provides a full range of social services for the homeless in our community, including psychiatric care, case management and emergency shelter.

Thresholds, Pioneer and other partner agencies provide community support, as well as transitional and permanent supported housing for some of these individuals. We wish we could reach more. Limits in funding and physical space make it impossible.

The goal of these HUD-funded housing programs is to assist these individuals in reclaiming their lives, getting themselves stable and healthy and, ultimately, transitioning them into their own apartments. Unfortunately, limits in affordable housing opportunities or housing vouchers make transitioning extremely difficult. So we get a backlog in our homeless residences, because our current residents have nowhere else to go.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. This year’s theme is “Mind Your Health,” and rightly so since many individuals who struggle with mental illness also experience other significant medical issues.

At Thresholds McHenry, we are working to help county residents who struggle with mental health challenges, including the homeless, to reclaim their lives and work to recover from their illness and all the problems that stem from this illness. With our partner service providers, we seek to provide comprehensive care and support for these vulnerable residents.

If you are interested in learning how you can help in ending homeless in our county, please join the conversation. The McHenry County Continuum of Care to End Homelessness meets at 9 a.m. every second Thursday of the month to address the issues of homelessness in our communities.

• David Esposito is the Director of Strategic Housing Initiatives at Thresholds.