Who's the "Mentally Ill, Homeless Man" Down the Street?

Think of a man, maybe one you recently saw, who has mental illness and lacks a home. Picture him walking down the street, trying to escape the voices in his head. Immediately, a group passes him, calling him crazy and stinky, while laughing hysterically. The man's used to this, but every time, he still sheds a tear, feeling embarrassed, sad and powerless -- unable to even fix his own situation.

According to some, approximately one third of the homeless population -- over 250,000 people -- suffers from severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Often, these people ask passers-by for money, ramble incoherently, or merely try to find shelter wherever possible, all the while being laughed at and ignored.

With disgust, onlookers regularly push these people aside, treating them as inhuman and objects of ridicule. Rather than attempt to help or understand, they are cast aside.

What we many times don't fully understand is, that man who is homeless and suffers from mental illness is a real person, too. Although he has a mental illness, he has real feelings -- pain, sadness, embarrassment and every other emotion we all have. At some point, he was a boy with aspirations and dreams, like everyone else, and likely, he still has them.

My mother suffers from mental illness. She was at many points in her life homeless, desperate and confused. For many years, I lacked an understanding of who she is because the only thing I could comprehend was her illness. Now, I see beyond her illness -- I see the woman who wants to become a hairstylist, the woman who longs for her family and the woman who hurts because she feels a lack of purpose.

We usually only see images, in everyday life and media, of the rambling, disheveled person, rather than the person we all, in some ways, are. We don't see the person who is passionate about music, wants to make a difference, or always dreams of being loved.

For these people, mental illness is their reality, trapping them in a world they don't quite understand -- all the while being judged and stigmatized for their differences. According to The Treatment Advocacy Center, the majority of these people are unaware of their own illness, yet left alone to roam free without support. They're likely hungry, lost and in need of some kindness.

The next time you see someone rambling on the street or asking for money, put yourself in their position. We need to imagine lacking a family, lacking food and lacking simple roofs over our heads. Maybe then, we'll understand and begin showing compassion.