Hard to House: Mental Health

This is the first in a series on what can stand in the way of getting those experiencing homelessness housed.

I have known ‘Ben’ for 10 years.  He is one of my favorites.  I know it may seem odd to have a favorite, but Ben will forever be one of mine.  I knew him before we had a shelter.  He attended the breakfast ministry I ran at Centenary every morning and he often slept outside the doors at night. If you could find him a hot cup of black coffee (day or night)  you were treated to his huge smile and generous thanks.  He was usually the first person I saw in the morning and often the last person I would see at the end of the day.  He never asked for much- only what was needed for survival. 

 When we opened the shelter for our initial season, he was our first guest and he stayed with us every night we were open for the next 3 years.  Ben has schizophrenia.  He isn’t under any medical care, managing his mental health by keeping to himself.  He is fearful of government control, he hears voices the rest of us don’t, and he believes that to stay safe he has to rely on himself and very few others.  Each year as the season began to wrap up, we would ask him about trying to get an apartment and he would tell us he was just fine.  That began to shift during his 4th year with us.  He was feeling his age and on several occasions before the season opened told me that he didn’t know how much longer he could sleep outside.  I remember telling a colleague that if I could figure out how to get him housed, it would be one of the best accomplishments of my life.  By season 4, I had earned enough trust with him that he was willing to entertain the idea of housing.

There are many, many steps to getting supportive housing (housing with case management and a little more TLC than regular housing).  We had to begin with getting an ID.  To get an ID, you need a birth certificate and a social security card.  To get a social security card, you need a birth certificate. Ben had no documentation of either.  Makes it kind of tricky.  Throw in a pandemic, government office closures, and huge anxiety around anything related to the government and you can see how difficult it is to get a basic ID.  We took lots of baby steps and I cashed in years of work building trust.  We went together to the government offices.  We sat together to fill out the forms.  I reassured him each step of the way that at the end of all of this, there was housing.  

To be a candidate for supportive housing, you have to have been homeless for at least 3 years and have a documented disability.  We could easily verify the homelessness but documenting his disability was another challenge.  Ben didn’t perceive himself as having a mental health disability and he had no interest in talking to a professional about it.  To those of us that knew him, we knew all it would take was 30 minutes with a psychiatrist and we would have that documentation.  I started reaching out to all of our connections.  Between the county social worker, a helpful psychiatrist,  Colette and myself, we were able to get an appointment.  In talking with Ben, I reassured him that we just needed to document his preference for sleeping outside and his wariness of the government.  The doctor wasn’t going to give him any medicine or treatments, but that this was the only thing standing between him and his own apartment.   I promised that I would go with him if that made him feel better.  

On a sunny spring morning, we went to his appointment.  I was keeping up a constant dialogue with Jesus.  Please let this go well, please don’t let this be the thing that breaks his trust in me.  Please help get this wonderful man housed.  Sure enough, within a few minutes of gentle conversation, we had what we needed and Ben could move to housing.  A few short months later I stopped by his apartment with some coffee and kitchen items.  He was so happy, so at peace, and so grateful not to be sleeping outside.  He proudly showed me around his spotless apartment.  As I left I couldn’t stop the tears from running down my cheeks.  Tears of joy that he was home, tears of frustration at how hard it is for someone with a mental illness to overcome systemic barriers to get housing, and tears of relief that with trust, courage, and a village of connections it can be done. – Pr. Erica

Published by parkinglotpastors

Pastors Erica Koser and Collette Broady Grund live and work in Mankato, Minnesota. In 2017, the birthed Connections Ministry, an ecumenical organization which operates a seasonal homeless shelter. On Easter 2021, they launched Shelter Church, a new worshipping community of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) which meets outdoors around a free community meal every Sunday evening.

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