From Homeless To Hopeful: How Mental Health Services Impact The Homeless Community
The Salvation Army of Milwaukee County’s Emergency Lodge is a beacon of hope for the homeless community in Milwaukee County. Among the many services provided by the Lodge is the opportunity to receive mental health assessment and counseling from Laurie, an onsite mental health professional.
Prior to May 2015, the Emergency Lodge did not have mental health services on location. This made it very difficult for homeless people with chronic mental health and substance abuse problems to access the services they needed. At the Emergency Lodge, counseling is voluntary and free. This allows clients to talk about the struggles they are having and to be able to address issues that may have contributed to chronic homelessness. Assessment and diagnosis are also provided with documentation to assist clients in applying for social security benefits.
“When Laurie came on board, it was a blessing from God,” said Nancy Szudzik, the Director of the Emergency Lodge. “It is a gamechanger for the people who suffer from mental illness, that come into the shelter that are open at that point to receive help.”
The mental health services provided at the Emergency Lodge can continue even after the client is no longer being housed there. This gives clients the opportunity to develop a trusting relationship with Laurie, which is essential to healing.
“It’s through that that people are able to receive a sense of hope,” Laurie said.
Michael* is one individual whose life is in a better place than it was when he first entered the Emergency Lodge, in large part to the services provided by The Salvation Army. Michael’s struggles with mental health started while he was living in New York City, where he had been born and raised. He started a new job that was high-stress and began to struggle with anxiety, panic attacks, major depressive episodes, and agoraphobia. Because of this, his life changed drastically and he chose to leave New York, thinking the city was too much for him, and moved to Milwaukee in 1991.
As Michael made a life for himself in Milwaukee, he gradually began to feel better. That is until life threw him a curveball and he lost his job and in turn, his apartment in 2014. Michael stayed in a hotel and with various friends until he found a room on Milwaukee’s south side that he paid for using his unemployment. But when unemployment ran out, Michael found himself homeless and had fallen into a depression.
Michael stayed the night at a church on the south side of Milwaukee and from there was directed to the Emergency Lodge.
“I couldn’t believe this, after I was here…There was a comfort here,” Michael shared of the Lodge.
When Michael arrived at The Salvation Army, he would spend his days in his bed with the covers pulled over his head. He began to meet with Laurie and to address his mental health struggles as well as his gambling addiction. During his time at the Lodge, Michael improved emotionally, mentally, and financially, and found himself moving out emergency housing and into an apartment of his own.
Michael continues to meet with Laurie, even six years after he first met her, because of the impact she had on his mental health, but also his life. Michael believes that everyone should seek help, but Laurie noted that many homeless people face barriers to access mental health services.
“There’s an ever-growing need and people are becoming aware of that. Having services like this available to folks here at the shelter enables those who use it to have more positive outcomes – improved relationships with family and others, and skills that enable them to break the cycle of homelessness,” Laurie shared.
Michael’s relationship with Laurie is a strong example of the impact of the mental health services at the Emergency Lodge.
“Having her here certainly helped me,” Michael said, growing emotional, tears welling up in his eyes. “There’s a way out. The only thing I can say, the word I always use, I found after my worst depression. I found hope.”
Another client who was significantly impacted by the mental health services at The Salvation Army Emergency Lodge is Harriet*. As a child, Harriet struggled with anxiety and started seeing a child psychologist at the age of nine. Later, she experienced a traumatic event and struggled with self-harm throughout her teenage years. Harriet’s psychologist helped keep her together through that time in her life.
In Harriet’s early adulthood, she was able to mask her struggles with mental illness well.
“I had this imaginary closet,” she said. “Whatever mask I needed for that particular situation, I could pull it out of that closet and use it.”
This worked for a long time, allowing Harriet to get married, raise a family, volunteer, and work on and off through the years. In 2006 though, Harriet was diagnosed with Lupus and due to this, her husband decided that their marriage was no longer working.
“That kind of released the beast, so to speak,”she said, “-That’s when it really caught up with me. That was the beginning of the spiral.”
This spiral included attempts at taking her own life, negatively impacting relationships with her children, moving to Tennessee for a short time, and multiple stays in hospitals to try and address and improve her struggles with mental illness. Harriet eventually came back to Milwaukee, where she soon found herself at St. Joseph’s Hospital after being talked off of a ledge. From there, she went to Rogers Medical Center, where she received not only the correct diagnosis, but also the correct medication. Then, Harriet was getting out of a taxi in front of The Salvation Army Emergency Lodge on New Year’s Eve 2019.
Harriet didn’t want to be at the Lodge and didn’t believe that things would get better. She described herself as ugly, and no matter what she did, she still felt ugly. However, Harriet soon met Chaplain Nate and he invited her to church with the promise of treats. Harriet didn’t believe in God, but went for the treats, week after week. Harriet met with him once a week, as well as meeting with Laurie regularly and participated in the onsite Women’s Oasis group.
“Little by little, the ugliness got better," she said, “-It just helped. It wasn’t easy, but it did help. Between the case manager and everyone else, I settled in and decided that maybe anger wasn’t the way to look at the world.”
Now, Harriet has an emergency plan in place and is working to repair fractured relationships with her family.
When speaking of her time at The Salvation Army Emergency Lodge, Harriet shared that sometimes she still misses it. She meets with Laurie regularly but also stays connected with her case manager and her roommates from Room 25, which was a fun and exciting place while she was there.
After her time at the Lodge, Harriet wrote a letter for a wall display there, which she ended by saying, “When I pulled up in a cab to The Salvation Army Emergency Lodge, I had all my possessions in a black garbage bag, along with bitterness and anger. When I left the Lodge, I had all my possessions in a big, bright green rolling suitcase, and hope in my heart.”
*Names have been changed for privacy reasons.