The connection between mental health and homelessness

This May, BEDS observes Mental Health Awareness Month. Sponsored by Mental Health America since 1949, the month seeks to raise awareness of mental health and its treatment. This year’s theme is Back to Basics, which recognizes how the pandemic and its restrictions affected our collective mental health and shares information on mental health and how people can seek treatment.

This month, we emphasize the connection between mental health and homelessness.

Nationally, 45 percent of people experiencing homelessness have some form of mental illness with 25 percent having a serious mental illness (defined as “a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder resulting in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.”) These include schizophrenia, severe bipolar disorder, severe major depression, and a handful of other disorders. Serious mental illnesses only affect four to five percent of the general population, but they are four to five times more prevalent among people experiencing homelessness. Mental illnesses create steep barriers to regaining housing, seeking support services, receiving health and behavioral healthcare, and recovering from homelessness.

Mental illnesses carry a stigma that amplifies stereotypes of homelessness.

Like people experiencing homelessness, people with mental illnesses are often cast as immoral, weak, or otherwise responsible for their conditions, as well as nonproductive members of society. They are also seen as dangerous. In fact, they are 11 times more likely than the public to be targetted by violent crime, making them more likely to be victims than perpetrators.[1] Similarly, people experiencing homelessness are more likely to be targeted by violent crime and more likely than anyone else to be the victims of hate crimes.

Twenty-six percent of our clients (729 individuals) report a mental illness, and we believe many more have undiagnosed disorders.

Mental illness is most prevalent among our permanent supportive housing (35 percent) and shelter (31 percent) clients, two of the most vulnerable groups in our service population. In the case of our shelter clients, mental illnesses have likely gone unrecognized and untreated due to inadequate support for people with mental illness and barriers to the services available. Our Chief Program Officer Shannon Goold describes how “our front line staff can’t make diagnoses or document conditions, but they are trained to recognize signs of mental health crises and needs. We see severe mental illness symptoms, significant needs, and barriers to mental healthcare among our clients. A large part of our work is directing them to the right places for help.”

We help clients manage mental illnesses.

Simply housing people experiencing homelessness with mental illnesses improves their health and safety, but we partner with Pillars, the Cognitive Clinic, and other leading community providers to ensure those we serve can regain housing and manage mental illness. Case managers in all our programs refer clients to these and other behavioral healthcare providers and help them understand and follow their treatment plans. We advocate for accessible and affordable mental healthcare, which would significantly reduce homelessness, but until then...

You can support our work for people experiencing homelessness with mental illnesses here.


In line with Mental Health Awareness Month, if you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please seek help. Area resources include:


[1] The question arises: why the disconnect between perception and reality? Researchers have found that, among crimes, we most fear “random, senseless, and unpredictable” acts of violence, which we believe people with mental illnesses perpetrate. Of course, this results from “vicarious...[literary, television, and] movie depictions of crazed killers” and "dramas played out with disturbing frequency on the nightly news,” which have been shaped to confirm these fears and biases. Case in point: the fixation on Buffalo shooter Payton Gendron’s mental health, which overlooks more complex socioeconomic factors behind his and other mass shooters’ crimes.

by Grant Suhs
Communications Specialist