Three women sit on a porch on the east side of Des Moines. If you were driving by, you’d likely think they were old friends sharing a cup of coffee and a chat. But these women are only recently acquainted and they’re together for a specific purpose; raising awareness about homelessness and mental illness.
“If it weren’t for family I would be under a bridge, in a homeless shelter, a tent in the backyard…,” says Kim Wilson. “I’ve actually broken things in anger. My husband is mentally ill,” she says through tears, “so I have to keep it together a lot.” The project these women are working on is “The Homeless Project.” It combines portraits and narrative to tell the stories of those who’ve struggled to survive. Mary Kline-Misol is the artist behind the paintings; Lisa Robin Sanford interviews the subjects and writes their stories.
Lisa Robin has a personal story to share as well. She says sexual abuse and her parents’ divorce changed her. She was once a happy little girl but at the age of nine was diagnosed as being a “troubled child.” She became angry and violent and by age twelve she was removed from her family’s home. “I was seen as a delinquent and instead of mental health treatment I was placed in juvenile correction.” Lisa Robin bounced from one foster home to another, ran away, and ended up on the street. Eventually she started using drugs. She ended up in jail. She never got the treatment she needed. “I had spent two-thirds of my life either locked up or institutions or in relationships that were a battering nature and I just kind of accepted, this is as good as it gets for me.”
The stories are familiar ones to Margaret Stout. “If you don’t have resources, it’s hard to survive,” she says, “people spiral downward and lose the house, the job, the car. It creates a serious problem and once you get into that downward spiral with your mental illness it’s very hard to come back up because the illness just gets worse, usually.” As the executive director of the Iowa chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Stout spends every day talking about the disease and its impact. “Oh!” she exclaims, throwing her hands in the air, “it affects corrections, family life, schools…and the person, most of all.”
When it comes to getting people the help they need, Iowa isn’t doing very well. In 2006 NAMI gave our state a failing grade. By 2009 we improved to a “D.” The organization found that we have what it classifies as “urgent needs” for statewide data collection, crisis response services and more mental health workers. “That is critical,” says Stout, “if people would go for treatment sooner, they would come out much better.” But Iowans aren’t getting treatment as soon as they need it, or as much as they need, and sometimes they aren’t getting it at all. More than 800 people are on waiting lists. “You’re sort of left to fend for yourself when you first discover you have a mental illness.”
Stout says there are countless problems, but three major ones. The shrinking number of treatment facilities, the lack of coverage for mental health treatment, and a shortage of psychiatrists combine to leave the mentally ill in a horrible limbo. A lot of it comes down to money, but Stout says the state has to acknowledge the cost of doing nothing. This year it seems legislators on both sides of the aisle agree. They’ve proposed at least half a dozen bills dealing with reforming our mental health system.
“It’s really time for our Iowa legislators to realize that this is not just a group of people out here saying the system is broken. It really is, and all you have to do is look at the events that take place.”
Some make headlines, like Mark Becker being released from the hospital and going on to shoot and kill Coach Ed Thomas. Other things, we never hear about, but maybe we should. Like Lisa Robin finally getting help, getting well, and going to college. She’s in the honor society and working to improve life for others struggling with mental illness.
“To me, they’re our heroes. They are the individuals who tell the story that others can relate to very, very well,” says Stout of volunteers and advocates like Lisa Robin, “When you get out there and talk about your own mental illness it helps others. It frees them to be more able to get that care and that help and see their peers doing well.”
The Homeless Project will be displayed in October at Moberg Gallery in Des Moines. Money raised will go to the Beacon of Life shelter.