Temporary homeless shelters in downtown San Diego
While tents have been removed on certain downtown streets, the homeless create temporary shelters. Photo by Chris Stone

San Diegans are frustrated with our homelessness crisis and many feel local government is failing to address the problem adequately. Building more homes and shelters has proven to be unsuccessful and our homeless population remains one of the highest in the nation.

In order to tackle the problem it is imperative to identify and address mental illness as early as possible to prevent future homelessness. The San Diego County school districts are in a perfect position to do this. Unfortunately, our schools do not have the personnel or funding to adequately attend to students with mental illness, so many simply fall through the cracks and remain untreated.

Often times, untreated mentally ill students grow up to be mentally ill adults. Worse, a large number of them end up homeless, living on the streets or being incarcerated. Last year, 43 percent of homeless people living on the streets in San Diego County were reported to have mental health issues.

Ultimately, it is a parent’s responsibility to address their children’s health issues, and that includes mental health. However, in many cases that does not happen for a multitude of reasons and the child is left to deal with anxiety, depression and other mental health issues on their own.

Untreated anxiety can lead to other problems for kids, and can function as a gateway to other mental health issues. Anxiety generates fear and fear creates avoidance which can lead to all sorts of problems, including isolation and depression, and alcohol and drug use.

Provided with adequate resources, school psychologists and counselors could help students who may have mental illness so they are not left to fend for themselves and possibly self-medicate to cope with their issues. Research shows that teens who use drugs to alleviate feelings of anxiety and depression compound their problems with the more serious challenge of substance abuse.

People who are diagnosed with both severe mental illness and substance abuse constitute 10-20 percent of the homeless population. Dealing with substance abuse, alcoholism, or drug addiction is never easy, and it is even more difficult when the student is also struggling with mental health issues.

Research suggests that up to 25 percent of the homeless population suffers from severe mental illness and a whopping  45 percent has some history of mental problems. It is no wonder that we are seeing our homeless population increase as government likes to treat the symptoms of homelessness through rent control and affordable housing, solutions that have proven time and time again not to work.

Mark Powell

For example, San Francisco has enforced rent control for decades yet has one of the most severe homeless problems in the country. San Francisco’s homeless population has risen 30% since 2017

Los Angeles has been working on homeless shelters and affordable housing projects for an equally long time, yet the homeless problem there continues to increase. According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, approximately 50,000 to 60,000 persons are homeless on any given night in Los Angeles County, more than 44,000 of them on the streets.

The recurring theme of untreated mental illness and substance abuse permeates the homeless crisis yet there is little or no funding dedicated to addressing homelessness at its starting point. Governor Gavin Newsom called for spending $625 million on services for the homeless in his first state budget, and local school leaders and elected officials need to petition the governor and request that some of that funding go directly to our school districts for early-intervention programs. With proper training, teachers could identify the early signs of mental illness and refer students to a school counselor or psychologist.

The evidence is clear; individuals with untreated mental illnesses can find themselves homeless for a multitude of reasons. From 2012 to 2016, there was a 55% increase in mental health emergency room visits by children. The National Association on Mental Illness reports that half of all chronic mental illness begins by the age of 14.

As a compassionate society we must manage homelessness as an ongoing core function of local government and a good place to start is in our public schools. That’s because 20 percent of children in the United States have a mental, emotional or behavioral disorder, and the number is on the rise. The relationship is obvious; substance abuse and mental illness are the major contributing factors to many people becoming and remaining homeless.

Without a proactive approach through early mental health intervention, the homeless will remain living in our streets, alleys, parks and canyons.

Mark Powell is vice president of the San Diego County Board of Education and an Adjunct Professor at National University.