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Homelessness in Grand Forks often tied to mental illness, addiction

Grand Forks Herald - 9/13/2023

Sep. 13—GRAND FORKS — A social worker in Grand Forks believes her role at Northland's Rescue Mission, which initially centered on poverty and homelessness, has evolved due to mental health issues rising in the homeless population.

"We're mental health professionals," Bobbie Fleming said. "Because of the amount of people that are coming in at this point with those diagnoses, my whole job has changed — just completely — in eight years."

In addition to mental illness, substance use issues have been barriers for the local homeless population, according to Sue Shirek, executive director at the Mission.

"We've found that addiction and mental illness are very much comorbid in a lot of our clients," Shirek said.

During the last fiscal year, from July 1, 2022, to June 30, 2023, the Mission provided emergency shelter for 403 people. Of those, 184 self-reported some form of mental illness (45.66%), 38 reported alcohol use disorder (9.43%) and 43 reported drug use disorder (10.67%.) Sixty-eight reported both alcohol and drug use disorder (16.87%), but the number of people who self-reported both mental illness and a substance use disorder is not specified.

In years prior, clients self-reported severe mental illness and chronic substance abuse. Following is the data according to those surveys:

2021-2022 fiscal year

* 321 clients

* 112 severely mentally ill (34.89%)

* 74 chronic substance abuse (23.05%)

2020-2021 fiscal year

* 299 clients

* 102 severely mentally ill (34.11%)

* 62 chronic substance abuse (20.74%)

2019-2020 fiscal year

* 459 clients

* 119 severely mentally ill (25.93%)

* 82 chronic substance abuse (17.86%)

Mission staff members suspect mental illness and substance use are severely underreported; Fleming believes at least 80% of clients experience mental health issues.

"You find out later on, after you do your initial intake," she said. "They say, 'No, I have no diagnoses, nothing going on,' and then a week later you find out they're schizophrenic."

There are numerous reasons someone may hesitate to report their diagnosis, staff members said. Some believe their diagnosis doesn't affect them enough to be worth mentioning; some fear they'll lose independence if they share their experience; some don't believe they have a mental illness or substance use disorder.

When Cpl. Troy Vanyo became a mental health and housing liaison for the Grand Forks Police Department five years ago, he was surprised to learn just how many people in the community have a severe mental illness.

In 2022, the GFPD responded to:

* 136 EMS overdose/ingestion/poisoning

* 137 EMS psychiatric disorders

* 55 suicidal persons with possible injuries

* 407 suicide threats

* 2,666 welfare checks

There is no specific category for calls related to homeless people; they're categorized under welfare checks, Vanyo said.

"A lot of times people's entrance into the mental health system is through law enforcement, because a lot of times we're their first contacts," he said. "So, when I become aware that patrol officers are dealing with someone with mental health issues, I will then connect them to services."

As liaisons, Vanyo and Cpl. April Prock dedicate their time to working with the city's mentally ill and homeless population. Usually, they find out who's in need of assistance through patrol officers and call logs. Sometimes concerned family members will call the department directly.

Throughout Vanyo's career, he's observed an increase in people in the area who have schizophrenia, paranoia and anxiety.

"There's kind of a constant theme we run across where people think they're being followed," he said. "Their phones are being hacked; they're being tracked by drones. People think that their house is being broken into and people are tampering with their food. It's these extreme paranoias that (are) eye-opening."

There are countless reasons why Vanyo is encountering more cases of mental illness, but he believes decreased stigma and increased drug use could be two of them.

Throughout his career, Vanyo also has observed that mental health and addiction issues often go hand in hand with homelessness.

For some people, their mental health issues were relatively manageable prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Constant changes, isolation and increased costs made their existing struggles insurmountable.

"Carrying through is easier," said Fayme Stringer Henry, social worker at the Mission. "Then a brick wall comes in front of you, and it's hard to rebuild."

At that time, the Mission began to serve more homeless people with mental health issues and, to accommodate them, the nonprofit partnered with local behavioral health and addiction service providers.

"It started out with some Zoom calls from their staff with our clients, and it was a once a week thing," Shirek said. "Now we've been doing five days a week."

The Mission's emergency shelter hasn't been at maximum occupancy (150 clients) since around 2017, the year Shirek became director. Finding housing for clients was easier then, she said, because many were without barriers like criminal records, substantial debts, mental health and substance use issues.

"Now we're seeing the high fruit on the tree," Shirek said. "Not the low-hanging fruit anymore, not the easy ones, but the people with significant mental health issues. Significant. Finding places for them to go has been really, really difficult."

Nowadays, there are usually around 30 clients at the shelter, with slightly more in the winter, Shirek said. As of Aug. 23, there were 32 clients.

"We have shelters and the street over here, and then we have (the North Dakota State Hospital) over here, and it's hard to find anything in the middle," Shirek said. "It's hard to find a place where those people with critical needs can go."

These are very vulnerable people, who've gone through trauma experiences to end up homeless, and often struggle to remain hopeful, Stringer Henry said.

"This is a hard job," she said. "I think it takes a certain type of person to be able to handle the things that (we) hear, and then dish back hope. That's the important part, I think, is making sure people realize that this isn't the end of the road for them."


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