Mental Illness + San Diego’s Homeless: Let’s take their hands, and get them the help they need

Herb Johnson with Congressmen

Me with The Honorable Congressmen Hunter and Murphy after our discussion on Mental Health issues among Homeless on World Mental Health Day. Congressman Murphy is pushing a bill to bring more rights and services to the mentally ill.

Depending on whom you talk to and which reports you read, stats about mental health among the homeless range from about 40 – 68%. That means 40 – 68% of the homeless people living on the street have some sort of untreated psychiatric illnesses, from Bipolar disorder to schizophrenia to major depression to a whole host of other mental illnesses.

I’ve always known that mental health plays a critical factor in the success of helping homeless men and women get the help they need to return to contributing members of society. That’s why I was eager to join the Mental Health Roundtable last month with Congressman Duncan Hunter and Congressman Tim Murphy. As we discussed the statistics of homeless people with mental illnesses in the US, I wondered how these stats measured up the homeless population staying at San Diego Rescue Mission’s own Recuperative Care Unit.

Our Recuperative Care Unit (RCU) addresses the critical needs of homeless men and women newly released from the hospital yet still requiring medical attention. When I met with our RCU staff and asked them about the percentage of mental illness cases they’ve witnessed here, I was surprised to learn that number was estimated at well over 90%! More than 90% of the homeless in our RCU suffer from mental health issues. And not minor ones – serious issues at the top of the mental health scale.

homeless kids

More than 50% of mental health cases among the homeless we see at San Diego Rescue Mission stem from early childhood trauma.

This is not a small issue. We are way over the norm here in San Diego. I asked my staff of Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists  why so many of our homeless have mental health problems. They explained that early childhood trauma is in many (or even most) cases a major contributing factor to severe mental illness.  Many had parents that were under equipped to raise them, and beating was often the only way they knew how to discipline. Many come out of homes with no standard of nurturing, and so they go through life never thinking to ask for help.

This is the problem with many of today’s mental health services. They are very difficult to access and navigate. And for a mentally ill person with no support, and who doesn’t think to ask for help, the system makes it difficult to get the treatment they need. People with mental health issues literally need someone to take their hand and say, “Let me help you. Let me walk you through this. Let me make sure you make it to your appointments.”

Homeless at Thanksgiving

We expect to serve close to 2,000 meals this Thanksgiving. When the lost, hungry and homeless walk through our door, and sit down for a warm meal, it’s an opportunity to take their hands, talk with them, and navigate the steps they need to get help.

Helping those who wouldn’t think to ask for help, is one of the primary goals of our annual Holiday meals. When those lost, hungry and homeless men and women walk through our door, and sit down for a warm meal, it’s an opportunity to take their hands, talk with them, and walk them through the steps they need to get help.

But even after we take their hands, many have mental scars that cannot be healed quickly. This is why we offer programs with long-term solutions. Our residential recovery programs are 12 months long and incorporate a holistic approach to recovery, addressing the needs of the mind, body, and soul. We give them space to shed their guilt and understand the issues that led to their homelessness in the first place.

And sometimes even a 12 month program is still not long enough. That’s why we also offer Alumni Aftercare where we continue to provide support as these men + women continue their efforts in becoming productive members of society.

handsPlease join me this holiday season in taking the hands of our homeless brothers and sisters. Together, we can help San Diego’s homeless get the treatment they need and deserve!

God Bless,


Herb Johnson