The relentless stress of being homeless can take a mental toll on many of the estimated 200 people who live on the streets of Langley.
So said senior outreach worker Fraser Holland as he reflected on Jan. 31 Bell Let’s Talk Day, a nation-wide movement that drew 138,383,995 messages of support for mental health, meaning Bell will invest a further $6,919,199.75 in Canadian mental health programs and initiatives.
— Bell Let's Talk (@Bell_LetsTalk) February 1, 2018
There were 206 homeless people counted in Langley in the 2017 Metro Vancouver count, conducted over two days last March. Langley’s numbers were third highest across Metro Vancouver.
Holland stressed that there’s a difference between mental illness and mental health.
Mental health, as defined by the World Health Organization, is “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”
Having no shelter for any stretch of time can take its toll on a person’s mental well-being, Holland believes.
“If all of the items and variables that provided one with comfort, security and basic well-being were taken away, how long would it take for physical and mental well-being to be impacted?” Holland asked.
“If one had no access to sanitary water, no access to a bathroom and had to wear the same clothes, whether damp or wet, for days on end, how would that impact overall wellness? If one were able to access a single meal a day, have next-to-no chance of restful sleep for days on end and the best chance of staying out of the elements is found in doorways, under awnings or tarps just waiting to be moved along, how functional is that individual going to be? What is their state of physical and mental health going to look like?”
Critics have pointed to the closure of Riverview Hospital in Coquitlam in 2012, saying people with mental health challenges are left to find for themselves on the streets with little to no support in place.
There is hope on the horizon in the form of a planned mental health and addictions centre on the Riverview lands, with construction expected to be completed in 2019.
The new 105-bed centre will offer specialized residential treatment to adults with severe mental health and addictions challenges, with the goal of helping to stabilize their illness and move forward with rehabilitation and recovery, according to the B.C. government.
The $101-million facility is slated to open in late 2019, replacing the current Burnaby Centre for Mental Health and Addiction.
And while this planned facility is more than a year away, those currently living on the streets of Langley City believe the harshness of being out in the elements, with no place to bath, fine warmth, or go to the bathroom remains a trigger for people with underlying mental health issues.
“Everybody out here has some form of mental illness,” said Helen*, a familiar face among Langley’s homeless. “They can say they don’t, but they do. It’s either anger issues or addiction issues, or it’s both. You have problems dealing with people, which in the end is a mental issue. You can’t relate to the common folk (when you’re) on the street, right?”
Helen says she tries to “stay sane,” but on several occasions her anger has boiled to the surface.
“Stupid questions and the stupidity,” she said.
In a sarcastic tone, she adds, “They say, ‘have a nice day! Hope everything goes well for ya.’ Well, yeah, it’s really going well, can’t you tell? Can’t you see how well it is? I’m going to have a nice day, it’s p***ing out rain. Have a nice day in your house!”
Helen went on to vent about the lack of respect she gets from RCMP, bylaw officers, and outreach workers. She says the perception that all homeless people are “thieves” clouds the public’s perception about the local homeless.
The Canadian Mental Health Association points out that people with mental illnesses remain homeless for longer periods of time and have less contact with family and friends. They encounter more barriers to employment and tend to be in poorer health than other homeless people.
Compounding this for many of the homeless of feeling being a pariah — ignored and unwelcome in the community, Holland added.
Frank,* another member of Langley’s homeless community, expands on Holland’s thought: “You’ve got bylaw (officers) chasing people from here to there… they need a little peace of mind, a place where they can go. Then they wouldn’t find people OD’d all over town, they wouldn’t be wasting their time and services, having an RCMP (officer) and bylaw officers standing there while two people pack up their tent. They don’t want to admit there’s a homeless problem here but it’s big. There’s over 190 to 250 homeless people in Langley. And in summertime there’s probably 100 more.”
Holland says for a person diagnosed as bipolar or with schizophrenia, the anxiety and depression that comes with having nowhere to go only compounds pre-existing mental health issues.
“Homeless people are always having to deal with, ‘Where am I going next? Where’s my next meal? Where’s my next washroom?’ You put those basic necessities back in, and you’ll find that people will settle, and things that might have been perceived as mental health (issues on the street) are not necessarily still there,” he said.
*Helen’s and Frank’s first names are pseudonyms to protect their identity.