Retired teacher, Paul Nelson, discusses the mental health and homelessness challenges facing the USA

Written By Paul Nelson

As an autism dad and retired teacher, I frequently speak to groups about autism and mental difficulties. Recently, I spoke to a group of first responders and found that these people: police officers, firefighters and 911 dispatchers, are being overwhelmed with calls dealing with individuals battling their mental health. The reason is simple. We are not providing care for adults with these conditions, and these people are finding themselves living on the street with nobody to care for them, or to administer and monitor their medications. We have no one to blame but ourselves, I’m afraid. We decided some time ago that we did not want our tax dollars to provide for adults with mental illnesses or disabilities. In so doing, we have created a huge problem that shows no sign of slowing down.

Many of our homeless are veterans who are unable to get the healthcare they richly deserve. Veterans make up over 11 percent of the homeless population – a statistic that needs to change.

     In some states, we do a fair job of providing assistance for young people with mental struggles. My son, Michael, has been entitled to full medical benefits since his diagnosis at age three. Medical Assistance provided him with an assistant in the public schools, as well as paying for expensive medications to help him adapt. However, now that he is an adult, my nightmare begins. My mind is constantly preoccupied with one thought. That is, “What will happen to my son when I’m gone?” I’ve prepared a Will and made arrangements to have my significant other become Michael’s caregiver if I should die, but that will only cover part of the problem. What if my significant other is unable to care for him? It is a nagging burden for many families across the USA. I live in an extremely poor part of Pennsylvania. Many people here are unable to afford legal fees to provide

instructions for the care of their disabled children or children with mental ill-health, should they become unable to care for them. How many of these children will end up on the street? This is a small town, yet we have between 60 and 70 homeless people here. Some of them are children with no parents. Our local Salvation Army feeds over 200 people per day, many of whom are mentally ill or disabled. Spend some time in a soup kitchen or similar facility. You will not only see people living in poverty, you will find that some of them have college degrees and have even held high-paying jobs. However, many have encountered personal tragedies, mental health issues, addiction or other hardships and have taken to living on the street or in a shelter.

     The mental hospital approach was not perfect. Some state and federal institutions were poorly run. However, many at least provided a respectable home for those in need. I know of one in Pennsylvania that even provided work for the residents, who grew crops and sold them locally. A great way to engage these people, within a respectful and respectable environment.

     I think it is far easier for most Americans to put up a huge “stone wall” and say, “those on the street are just lazy, druggies. They don’t want to work, so I don’t care about them.” In central Pennsylvania, that is certainly the attitude of some residents – I’ve seen it first-hand. Those who do not fit the patented mold of what is considered to be ‘normal’ are cast aside. I like to remind people that there is no ‘normal’. ‘Normal’ is simply a setting on the clothes dryer.

     The answer? It is not a simple one. Homelessness is a rapidly growing issue – in the USA and overseas. To combat it will require time and money. As a nation, we will need to come together, unite and provide much-needed support to those in need.