Homelessness linked to mental health
December 1, 2013
Mark Maseros used to be a repeat customer at the ER — when he wasn't in jail for drugs or theft.
Now 54, Maseros spent three decades living homeless in Denver. Hooked on heroin that he took to self-medicate what he now recognizes as an anxiety disorder, he was taken to the emergency room after overdosing. Or he walked in with panic attacks.
"It was always good to go to the emergency room, because you'd get things to deal with your uncomfortableness," Maseros said. "If I said the magic words that I wanted to kill myself, they'd set me up in a bed."
Throughout the years, Maseros said he was diagnosed "bipolar, tripolar" and any number of other psychiatric disorders.
But he never got the sustained care he needed until four years ago, when the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless found housing for him, and he joined group therapy to help get the better of his anxiety.
"I'm happy now," said Maseros, who does rounds through downtown Denver on his bike, looking for others who are suffering as he once did. Maseros tries to point people to the services that are available in the city. He knows that without help some of them will end up dead.
The president of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, John Parvensky, said there are many more like Maseros who want help but can't get it. His organization stopped carrying a waiting list for mental health services when it reached 2,000 people.
Parvensky thinks there is a straight line between the decrease in funding for mental health — and especially the decline in inpatient capacity — and the increase in homelessness in Colorado.
He estimates that about 40 percent of the adult homeless in the state suffer from serious mental illness — diagnoses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or severe depression that keep people from working and living in housing.
"We saw the biggest spike in homelessness in the 1980s," said Parvensky, "and it really correlated to both the deinstitutionalization as the state closed down the mental health facilities, and the funding that was promised to provide community-based services … never materialized."
Patrick Fox, a state Department of Human Services official who oversees the mental institutes at Fort Logan and Pueblo, said that additional mental health funding pledged by the state will work to alleviate pressure on emergency rooms and jails — and care for the Colorado's most vulnerable populations where they are.
But Parvensky, who has watched the state's homeless population more than triple since he joined the nonprofit in 1985, thinks the chronic underfunding will be tough to undo.
"It's a down payment," said Parvensky, "but unfortunately it's a drop in the bucket compared to the need we're seeing here in the metro Denver area and across the state."