Eventually, one can hope, the weather will change. The snow will thaw and the air will warm and some normalcy will return to venturing outside.
There is no telling when that will occur. The region still is digging out from a snowstorm last week that hit near-record proportions, and an ice storm followed by possible flooding is expected today or later this week. Yet while there is longing for a return to more comfortable temperatures and driving conditions, there also is hope that another result of the storm — renewed attention toward the plight of the homeless — will not abate.
The weather has brought forth much concern and numerous charitable acts toward those who live on the streets. In Vancouver, volunteers have reached out with gloves, coats, and blankets to provide warmth; and churches have opened their doors to provide shelter. As overnight temperatures have often dipped below 20 degrees, it has become unimaginable to think of a person sleeping in a doorway or in their car.
This reality has been particularly acute in Portland, where the homeless crisis dwarfs that of Clark County, and where four people reportedly have died of hypothermia since the storm hit last week. Media reports have indicated that at least two of those people were living on the streets while suffering from a mental health crisis.
The extreme weather and resulting concern for homeless people reiterates the unbreakable link between homelessness and mental health. Washington’s mental health system has been troubled for some time, and a lack of adequate care not only contributes to a growing homeless population but increases the level of risk faced by that population. Somebody undergoing a psychotic episode is unlikely to seek assistance or shelter when weather conditions go from uncomfortable to dangerous. Severe mental illness also often is accompanied by substance abuse — another factor that can prevent somebody from seeking help.
Bolstering mental health triage and expanding access to facilities can help mitigate the epidemic of homelessness throughout the community, and that will require attention from the Legislature during its current session. Washington’s mental health system is failing residents, and that calls for leadership from Gov. Jay Inslee and ideas from lawmakers.
Meanwhile, it also calls for attention from other citizens. The outpouring of assistance for the homeless has been born of empathy and an understanding for the dangers presented by the weather, but it is not a concern that should disappear when the weather warms. The immediate danger eventually will lessen, but warmer temperatures will not eliminate a troublesome societal issue.
Human nature often leads us to ignore those in crisis or to think that it is somebody else’s problem. But dealing with an issue calls for action; if you witness somebody facing an immediate crisis, call 911; for less immediate concerns, the crisis line of the local office for the National Alliance of Mental Illness is 800-626-8137.
While winter storms have increased interest in the issues facing homeless citizens, they also have served as a reminder that those issues don’t go away when the weather warms. And that calls upon each of us to assist those who are in crisis.