Building hope on the streets

Nonprofits help homeless with mental health needs
Seventy three year old Rudolph Stag, suffering from chronic homelessness, stares into the street while smoking a cigarette. An immigrant from Hamburg Germany, Stag was left with no other option but to live on the streets following the foreclosure of his house.
Seventy three year old Rudolph Stag, suffering from chronic homelessness, stares into the street while smoking a cigarette. An immigrant from Hamburg Germany, Stag was left with no other option but to live on the streets following the foreclosure of his house.
Nicholas Lee
Chapter 1: Out of sight out of mind

A man without a home sits on the sidewalk. People quickly pass by, and his stomach growls; he hasn’t eaten in the last 24 hours. He leans his head against the concrete walls of the pharmacy behind him, and in that moment, a wave of hopelessness overwhelms him. Yet, organizations, volunteers, and kind-hearted people offer a light in the darkness to help him overcome his struggles.

According to an annual homeless assessment report (AHAR) sent to Congress by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, on average, 582,500 people experienced homelessness every night in 2022. Forty percent of these people are in unsheltered environments such as abandoned buildings, underpasses, or streets. Thirty percent of all homeless individuals experience chronic patterns of homelessness. 

Being chronically homeless is defined as having a disability (mental or physical), along with having been homeless for a year or more, and having had four episodes of homelessness over three years. The data indicates that the issue of homelessness is still prevalent and that the majority of homeless individuals need help from the public.

An unseen contributor is the role mental health plays among the homeless population, especially those suffering from chronic homelessness.

 One person who recognizes this factor is Nicholas Rubingh, a Street Life Ministries (SLM) representative and volunteer. Rubingh is passionate about helping homeless individuals go through any struggle, including mental illness, remarking his long nights and sleepless days as he dedicates himself to assisting them.

“A lot of people feel like they don’t deserve to get better or deserve to improve. So you see a lot of self-sabotage. So, working with people to get over that. To get over depression and low self-worth and to show them that they can have a better life can be huge for them,” Rubingh said. 

Rubingh also mentions a time when a woman came into one of their refuges to stay off the street and to feel comfortable. She pitched a tent inside the building and slept in the tent. He emphasizes the difficulty of mentally adjusting to housed life.

“The set of skills you need to survive on the streets is totally different from the set of skills you need to survive in normal everyday society, and it can be hard,” Rubingh said. 

In addition, medication and counseling are the cornerstone of any form of mental health treatment; however, due to their lack of resources, individuals suffering from homelessness require a pipeline to get treatment or, if necessary, financial help to get their prescriptions. 

“Quality clinical care treats the entire person: mind, body, and spirit. The goal of mental health is to provide a feeling of safety, validation, and stability within oneself, and we’re working to achieve that,” said Hailey Smith, a representative of Episcopal Community Services (ECS), a nonprofit that assists those suffering from homelessness.

According to Rubingh,  the root of poor mental health amongst the homeless population is due to the stress of planning and struggling with the challenges that come with surviving on the streets. 

“Homelessness is basically a full-time job. Every day, you get up and have to figure out where you will sleep that day and how you’ll get food that day. When you’re busy trying to survive, it can be difficult to improve your life,” Rubingh said.

Rubingh firmly suggests getting these individuals psychiatric aid is just as important as getting them a hot meal and a warm bed, noting that guiding them mentally through the process of escaping homelessness while simultaneously providing them with basic necessities is the method to solving chronic homelessness.

“I really think a big part is doing everything at once. You get people in the housing while you’re also working to get them clean instead of just doing one or the other because if you just have one without the other, you’re going to end up back on the streets,” Rubingh said. 

Chapter 2: The helping hands: Street Life Ministries

In recent years, with awareness of the combined issues of homelessness and mental health in the limelight, organizations, volunteers, and good-hearted people are finding ways to reach out a helping hand and guide those suffering from extreme poverty into a better future. Among these organizations (mentioned in the previous chapter) is Street Life Ministries (SLM), a nonprofit organization that provides housing, food, clothing, medical assistance, career counseling, and even spiritual counseling to those in need.

“We work to build trust, we work to help guide them towards healthier decisions,” Rubingh said. 

Their mission statement is to provide a holistic approach to resolving the issue of widespread homelessness in the Bay Area through religion, inspiring others through empathy and compassion to evoke trust and long-lasting bonds that greatly help the rehabilitation process. 

“Telling people that they are loved unconditionally can be huge and allows people to have self-worth, and it makes them know that they can change,” Rubingh said. 

They also host community events in their spheres of influence, such as clothing, food, and quality-of-life equipment donations, fellowship opportunities, fundraisers (such as live music with collaborations with local bands and businesses), and even a free day of dental care.

“A lot of people who are out there have faced trauma from authority figures. There’s a lot of mistrust, generally among doctors and government and such. So we’re trying to build trust with people. So they know that we’re always there for people when they need us,” Rubingh said.

The nonprofit is primarily based in Menlo Park, Palo Alto, and Redwood City and is slowly expanding to other locations to get one step closer to achieving its mission statement.

“We’ll give out more food, friendship, and encouragement, and then once we built the relationships, we’ll work hard to start making longer-lasting changes in people’s lives,” Rubingh said. 

Chapter 3: The helping hands: Episcopal Community Services

Episcopal Community Services (ECS) is another nonprofit organization that works towards helping people without housing and their mental health. Based in San Francisco and similar to SLM, ECS tackles homeless rehabilitation holistically, including addressing an individual’s mental health. 

“Without sleep, food, warmth, and shelter, one cannot expect to have a healthy mind or body. The brain is an organ that requires chemical balance, nutrition, and rest like the rest of the body to recover,” Smith said.

Most notably, ECS has dedicated behavioral health services to help individuals recover psychologically while meeting their necessities to recover physically.

“Often, the trauma of homelessness can cause people to suffer from mental health issues or exacerbate existing mental illnesses that are untreated. It is important that we address homelessness at its root, and that starts with creating more permanent supportive solutions from which people can pursue a better quality of life,” Smith said.

According to Smith, Episcopal Community Services has been working to feed, house, and rehabilitate homeless individuals from their past traumas and hardships and into the working world since 1983. With nearly 5,000 individuals served, 227 individuals resolutely housed, and hundreds of others impacted by their heartfelt devotion to helping them.

“Don’t ever give up on your ability to grow more compassion and empathy,” Smith said.

Chapter 4: Some peace of mind

The actions of the two nonprofits above illuminate the compassionate and considerable effort volunteers give when assisting those suffering from homelessness and mental illness. A vast majority of these volunteers suggest that steps as simple as sitting down to talk with someone homeless and treating them with respect are enough to give that individual a significant boost to their mental health.

“One thing you could do is have a conversation with someone who is homeless and let them know that they are not unseen. If you are working at a business and are looking to hire someone, consider hiring someone who was or is homeless and give them that second chance,” Rubingh said. 

What would even further accelerate the improvement of mental health among people without housing (and homelessness as a whole) is not just donating food, money, and clothing, but applying the skills you have built up through your education or career to help people experiencing homelessness.

“See if there is anything you can help out with; if you’re an architect and you want to help with the building, if you’re an employer, then help give out jobs, or just donate, or talk to some people experiencing homelessness,” Rubingh said. 

Although remedying mental illness from homeless individuals seems far away, volunteers will continue to valiantly dedicate themselves to benefiting the mental health of those in need, and through their efforts, we end up one step closer to getting homeless individuals a better life and healthier mind.

“There are many ways that it seems like a huge problem, you know, and it is, but it’s not insurmountable, and no matter what your skill set, there’s almost certainly something you could do to help. So if you’re feeling inspired, reach out, volunteer, do something, because a difference can be made,” Rubingh said. 

About the Contributor
Nicholas Lee
Nicholas Lee, Staff Writer
Nicholas Lee (Class of 2025) is a junior at Carlmont High School and a vice president of Carlmont's Interact Club. He is currently in his second year of the journalism program. He is working towards getting to know the many individual stories in the Bay Area and what makes them interesting. In his time off, he is often seen reading, running, editing videos, hanging out with friends, and playing the guitar. To view his portfolio, you can click here.

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