Thinking Through Sustainable Solutions to Homelessness and Mental Illness

Homeless encampments are not an uncommon sight during my daily commute into work. Since 2013, Los Angeles' chronically homeless population - those who live on the street for one year or more - has increased by 55 percent. The city declared a "shelter crisis" in November, and began to establish temporary housing - a great first step - but to appropriately address the issue of homelessness, we must also recognize it as a public health crisis.

The stress and experiences of living on the streets, in a shelter or out of one's car, can significantly impact one's health. Homeless men and women are more likely to suffer from physical and mental illnesses and become dependent on illegal drugs or alcohol, all of which make it more difficult to move themselves out of poverty.

Three years ago, the Chicago School's Los Angeles Campus partnered with the Los Angeles Mission (LAM), a 75-year-old organization that addresses the needs of the city's homeless, to deliver on its commitment to make a transformational impact on the community. Graduate students from our Clinical Psychology, Forensic Psychology and Marital and Family Therapy Programs develop assessment and treatment plans for homeless men and women served by the Mission. Students provide comprehensive supports and services to those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, bipolar disorder, and other mental health issues that may be exacerbated by an individual's experience with emotional, physical or sexual trauma while living on the streets. These services add capacity to the Los Angeles Mission to ultimately provide more people with the chance for permanent and sustainable positive life changes.

Frank Miller, a former attorney who came to the LAM in April 2014, has a story that illustrates the impact of our work. Frank fell into a deep depression and began to abuse alcohol when his civil and criminal litigation business began to struggle. He lost his income, then his home, and found himself living on Skid Row, an area in downtown Los Angeles that is home to our country's largest concentration of homeless men and women. Frank was referred to the Los Angeles Mission and enrolled in its rehabilitation program, which now includes psychological counseling. Now, inspired by his experience working with our students, Frank is on a path to study psychology at the University of New Mexico, and to pursue a career in spiritual-based counseling to offer to others the kind of support he received at the Los Angeles Mission with The Chicago School. Each year, 120 individuals are enrolled in The Chicago School's 13-month counseling program, which boasts a graduation rate of nearly 75 percent.

Our students are also impacted by their work with the Los Angeles Mission. This real-world experience enriches our students as psychology practitioners by giving them an opportunity to gain a sophisticated understanding of the human experience and apply what they learn in the classroom to help people live more fulfilling and healthier lives.

In a few days, The Chicago School in collaboration with the Los Angeles Mission and First Foundation Bank will bring together agencies that serve homeless women, service providers, psychologists, students and business and non-profit leaders for a conversation focused on how we can help create sustainable solutions that empower at-risk women and strengthen the health of their communities.

A woman whom I met in the lobby of the Los Angeles Mission was the catalyst of this one-day Women's Conference. This young woman struggled with homelessness and substance abuse for years, but after finding her way to the Los Angeles Mission, she succeeded in overcoming numerous challenges. She found quality housing, maintained her sobriety (she's now 16 years sober), and graduated from a regional occupational program for flower arrangements - a passion that she discovered during her time with the Los Angeles Mission that she now uses to mentor and inspire others through their journey to sustainable and positive life changes.

I have the pleasure of keynoting this event, which will serve as the beginning of an ongoing collaborative, that creates community, provides professional training and seminars, and places students in positions to collect data, perform research and work in more impactful ways in one of the most devastated homeless populations in the country.

As Los Angeles officials look to further curb its homeless population, we hope that it also seeks to implement supports beyond housing to address the physical and mental health issues that disrupt people's ability to end the cycle of homelessness and poverty.