Safe Haven helps mentally ill homeless

Jamie VanGeest

DEditor’s Note: This is the last of a three-part series on schizophrenia.

1onald Friedman was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia after he left the military in his 20s.

Homeless for 15 years, he found living life difficult.

“I couldn’t keep up with things; life got a little too overwhelming,” Friedman said.

Most nights Friedman would stay in his car or in a shelter. If the weather was nice, he slept outside.

Some nights he would stop by restaurants around closing time and the servers would be kind enough to give him leftover food, he said.

While surviving day-to-day, Friedman struggled with hallucinations and paranoia – symptoms of schizophrenia. Friedman said he believed most people around him were after him.

“I kind of closed my mind to real things a lot of times, I would go into my own imaginary world,” Friedman said.

Like some who struggle with mental illness, he said, he self-medicated with alcohol.

“I would not sleep some days on end – I struggled with alcohol abuse,” he said.

About a year ago Friedman met Lisa Heuer-Andrews, an outreach worker from People Incorporated Safe Haven Services, a Twin Cities organization that assists chronically homeless adults with mental illnesses.

When she found Friedman he was at a crisis center and no one knew who he was because he had no identification and didn’t speak to anyone.

Outreach workers reach most of their clients by traveling to homeless camps and shelters and trying to build relationships with the people there, Heuer-Andrews said.

“Because of their mental illness, they don’t know how to get services; they don’t realize they’re mentally ill,” Heuer-Andrews said.

Heuer-Andrews said she passes out survival gear such as food, sleeping bags, socks and candles. After gaining trust, outreach workers encourage those at the camps and shelters to come to Safe Haven, or assist them in getting government benefits such as Social Security.

“I wasn’t on my medication and I didn’t have any real place to go anymore,” Friedman said.

After getting to know Heuer-Andrews, Friedman agreed to come live in the Safe Haven house in St. Paul.

Friedman is one of more than 100 people Safe Haven has helped since opening in April 2005, said Nancy Webster-Smith, program director for Safe Haven.

A majority of the organization’s clients continue to live on the streets. But some come and stay in one of their two houses, one in Minneapolis and the other in St. Paul.

The houses serve as a transitional place where people can receive treatment for mental illness from John Vuchetich, a psychiatrist and University professor. Two psychiatry residents from the University also treat patients at Safe Haven.

Each house has 10 beds and is set up like a typical home with a kitchen, laundry room and living room. On a typical afternoon, a patient might lounge on the couch and watch “The Maury Povich Show.”

The two houses serve as a transition as these formerly homeless people move into permanent housing.

As soon as Friedman began living in the St. Paul Ramsey House, workers started him on medication and sessions with Vuchetich, Vuchetich said.

“It took Donald about five months to blossom,” Heuer-Andrews said. She called his transformation “amazing.”

Almost eight months after entering the program, Friedman got his first job in years and now attends college classes. He said he hopes to transfer to Hamline University and become an architect.

The transition from homelessness to permanent housing can take a while, but the program is hoping for more success stories such as Friedman’s, Webster-Smith said.

The program experienced trauma its first year during the Fourth of July weekend, when one of its outreach clients was beaten to death by three teenagers. That same day, a different client who lives in the St. Paul house was beaten so badly that he remained unconscious under a bridge for three days.

“It not only affected the Safe Haven staff; it affected the entire homeless community,” Heuer-Andrews said.

The only mention of the two beatings was a paragraph on the second page of a St. Paul paper, Webster-Smith said.

Friedman and the staff at Safe Haven said they realize, through their experiences on the streets of the Twin Cities, that there are many misconceptions about homelessness and mental illness.

“It’s back-page information to many people that (homeless people) exist,” Heuer-Andrews said.

Statistics suggest a majority of homeless people struggle with mental illness, Webster-Smith said.

Many think people are homeless because they’re lazy and don’t want to get a job, which is often not the case, Webster-Smith said.

“Their mental health issues are barriers and it’s hard to maintain positions,” she said.

Friedman said that if a person begins to see a loved one withdraw from society, he or she needs to try to help them before it’s too late.

“It hurts inside because I suffer from (schizophrenia) and there are people who have slipped through the system because nobody started to help them early enough,” he said.

And when it comes to homelessness, people don’t want to be bothered with it, he said.

“I just hope that people will start helping each other a little more.”