Re: Are most homeless people "mentally ill"? Who benefits by

Graeme Bacque (
Sun, 07 Feb 1999 07:38:34 -0500

Tom Boland wrote:

> Policy makers and journalists repeatedly state that many people are
> homeless because they are "mentally ill".  Do you agree or disagree?  Why
> or why not?

In a report issued in late 1997 entitled 'Pathways to Homelessness' the Clarke
Institute of Psychiatry in Toronto cited 'serious mental illness' as being a
direct contributer to people being homeless in _three per cent_ of total cases.
(This coming from a rather conservative psychiatric institution, folks!)

Personally I don't buy into the medical model for peoples' distress or problems
in living, and it's blanket application to the issue of homelessness is a
deliberate attempt to deflect responsibility by attributing a 'personal
deficit' model to what is in fact a social and political issue.

Homelessness in Ontario in particular has exploded since 1995 - during this
time Welfare rates were slashed 22 per cent, social housing has been decimated,
rent controls relaxed and the eviction process streamlined. Yet there are still
many who seemingly attribute the homelessness crisis to an 'epidemic of 'mental
illness' '. (Then again, there are also  people who still believe the Earth is

> Who stands to gain by portraying homeless people as "mentally ill"?  Who
> stands to lose?

Certainly the politicians, owing to the evasion of responsibility I've
described above, and the opportunity to exploit the situation as a 'law and
order'or 'public safety'  issue. The pharmaceutical corporations and shrinks in
terms of simple monetary profit (and state-sanctioned power when discussing the
shrinks). The media, who make their money through sensationalized, distorted
portrayals of homeless persons and psychiatric survivors.

The losers are obviously homeless persons, and especially psychiatrically
labeled persons. The gains listed above are always at our expense in terms of
both public perspectives and perceived social entitlements (Psych. survivors in
particular find themselves on the bottom rung.) When you are perceived as
'inferior' your real needs cease to have relevance to all intents and purposes
- and you even lose the right to define your own needs. The wide application of
the 'mental illness' designation serves this end.

> Does the widespread perception that homeless people are "mentally ill" help
> those so-labeled get more of what they need?  Does it help homeless people
> in general, that is, as a group or class?

Certainly not in terms of real physical needs such as decent housing, adequate
income, proper nutrition and meaningful community with peers. There is a
criminal, deliberate shortfall here affecting in particular persons with
psychiatric labels, simply because such labels confer an automatic designation
of inferiority - our needs are seen as somehow less important, or that lesser
standards are adequate in our case.

There's an increasing situation of people who actually try out of desperation
to seek psychiatric assistance but are turned away. The problem here goes far
deeper than a supposed lack of services but also extends to the nature of
resources available (too many people view medical intervention as the _only_
appropriate solution to crises in living and access even to that is
inadequately provided). Very seldom is thought given to the kind of voluntary
social supports ourselves and our own peers can develop, for a fraction of the
cost of  psychiatric intervention (which is generally totally inappropriate to
the situation in any event). The operative word here is 'community' (although
not in the sense meant by governments) and it should form the cornerstone of
all our organizing efforts.

Graeme Bacque
+++ Fighting 'mad' and proud of it! +++