NOTE: This is the third of four stories in our May is Mental Health Month #MyTruth series. These stories provide a stark portrait of what life is really like for individuals and their loved ones, this campaign is also about focusing on the actions we can all take to make a difference.
When I was three years old, my biological father was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. It was a devastating diagnosis for my family.
It was not long before symptoms of the illness led him to drug and alcohol addiction. This not only ended my parents’ marriage but also played a key role in my dad’s inability to maintain employment and has resulted in him living on the streets for the majority of my 18 years.
He’s still experiencing homelessness today.
Oftentimes people think that those who have mental illness or are homeless somehow “deserve” their situation or wish that upon themselves. Nobody wants to be sick. Nobody wants to not have a place to live. But I can understand that the reality would seem incomprehensible to many, as most of us will always have a home.
I’m sharing this story because I want you to see my truth — that providing housing and connecting people to life-changing services can end homelessness and, in the process, bring someone like my father home.
In pictures, I was very obviously a daddy’s girl. He will always be my father even if others see him only as “crazy,” “homeless,” or maybe choose to not see him at all.
I do have incredibly strong, positive memories of him. I can remember stroking his cheek and feeling so much love for him. My mother says she sees many of his good qualities in me. He was incredibly perceptive about the world around him. He had a huge interest and love for philosophy, and he was very artistically gifted.
Growing up, my mother had full custody of me, but she did allow supervised visits with my dad. We did normal things, as any family would on those visits, like marveling at nature while walking through the rose garden at Woodward Park. My father could pick out the best toys at the toy store and he even attempted to teach me how to ride a bike.
My family was open with me from a young age that my father was sick. Even if I wasn’t told some of his specific circumstances, my mother made clear she never wanted stigma to surround his illness. I visited him often at Salvation Army rehabilitation centers. I knew that at some point he didn’t have a home and that me so sad as a child. Although I was often envious of classmates at school who had fathers to play sports with, I knew none of them could ever understand my family’s reality — that my dad was sick and homeless. Through it all, I unconditionally loved him and did not fault him for being ill.
My dad wanted to better himself
He would maintain sobriety and take his medication for months at a time. But the side effects of the medication made him feel “dry” and dull and not like himself. He often resorted back to heroin or alcohol to ease the symptoms he was plagued with– namely the hallucinations. It was a never-ending battle. I hoped he was going to get better, and a few times I truly thought it was finally going to happen. The disappointment when it didn’t was crippling.
I can remember feeling so hurt when my friends would casually mock people living on the streets, sometimes right to their faces, or when people would think it was acceptable to dress up as “homeless people” for Halloween. Despite his circumstances, my dad is a good person. When I see someone living on the street, I will always think “that could be my dad.”
Housing changes everything
Dad was off and on homeless from about the time I was three years old. When I was nine, he left Tulsa for California because the winters in Tulsa were harsh without shelter. Over the span of the next nine years his journey has spanned multiple states. Most recently, I received word from my aunt that he’s walked and hitchhiked his way to Arizona.
With guidance from Mental Health Association Oklahoma, which is nationally known for its housing and recovery programs, I’m working to try to find a way to get my dad into housing in Arizona, or possibly back here in Tulsa.
No one — especially my dad — deserves to be homeless.
I’m advocating for people to see what housing can do for someone. You’re not going to be able to function and think about what you’re doing next unless you have a safe place to live. It’s all about getting people housing first. Once my father’s in housing, he would have a caseworker that would work with him to connect him to get treatment for his addictions, to get him into treatment for his mental health, to work towards figuring out what his goals are in life, like getting a job.
Once everything changed for my father, one of the biggest things I would look forward to is being able to have healthy contact with him. Every girl wants a healthy relationship with their dad. I’ll never lose hope for that. I am a Christian, and I lean on the Lord often for guidance and understanding. I pray often that God heals him and gives him peace.
Sign-up for a housing tour
When you see a person living on the streets, even if he or she may be talking to themselves or may be ravaged by life without home and treatment, they are someone’s loved one. That’s something that I wish everybody remembered at the moment they may want to think or say something negative.
To see my truth — that life after homelessness is possible — I would encourage anybody to take one hour of their time to take a tour of Mental Health Association Oklahoma’s housing and recovery programs in Tulsa and Oklahoma City. You’ll see how the Housing First model changes everything. It’s just 60 minutes of your day, but it’s a very powerful experience that will open your eyes to what it’s really like for people to go from the streets into a safe place to live.
If you are an Association supporter interested in taking a guided tour of the Association’s life-changing housing and recovery programs, contact Matt Gleason at 918.382.2422 or email email@example.com.