Sometimes we as a society look at these men as being beyond help. They aren't beyond help. There is a lot we can do for them — a lot they can do for themselves.
SALT LAKE CITY — The low rumble of the vacuum crawling along the carpet at Calvary Chapel Salt Lake isn't enough to mask the persistent threats.
"I'm watching you."
"Don't mess up."
"You're going to end up in jail."
Sometimes it gets to be too much for Chris Sebring, and he bursts out in rebellion. "Shut up," he says. "Shut up." But for the most part, the 41-year-old janitor just keeps pushing the vacuum back and forth, back and forth.
He knows it's all in his head.
Everyday is a battle with paranoid schizophrenia. Things are going well for Sebring now. For three years, he has held down a full time job and paid for his own apartment. It took him more than 30 years struggling with drug abuse and homelessness, though, to get the upper hand on his mental illness.
Mental illness ranks third after substance abuse and lack of affordable housing on the list of the most commonly cited causes of homelessness. Between 20 and 25 percent of the homeless population in the United States suffer from some form of severe mental illness, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The percentage nearly doubles if lesser illnesses like clinical depression and anxiety disorders are taken into account.
When it comes to beating homelessness, it's these people who often struggle most, said Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. Many turn to illegal drugs as a means to self medicate.
"Pulling out of homelessness is hard," Donovan said. "Mental illness makes it exponentially harder."
But there is hope. Sebring is proof of that.
Sebring, a short, stout man who keeps his cinnamon-colored facial hair trimmed in a neat goatee, smoked his first marijuana joint in the fourth grade.
His grandmother, who raised him, was a chain smoker. One summer evening, he snuck a cigarette from her stash and took it behind the chicken coop. He lit. He inhaled. And he gagged. The smoke burned his lungs. It tasted terrible. That might have been the end of it, but, just then, his uncle came lumbering through the bushes. Watching Sebring hacking and hacking, the uncle shook his head.
"Don't smoke cigarettes," he said. "I've got something better."
The following decades were a drug-induced blur. Sebring became a drug dealer. He got kicked out of one school and failed most of his classes in the next. He isn't sure when he started experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia. It was hard to tell the drug hallucinations from the schizophrenic ones. He couldn't sleep because the voices in his head were too loud. He self medicated by doing more drugs.
"The voices were relentless," he said.
"Leave the state," the voices told him. "You're an alien." "The FBI is tracking you."
"I just wanted the voices to stop," Sebring said.
At one point he had a wife. They divorced. He had a house. He sold it for $25,000 cash and spent the money on drugs. He moved in with his father a few times. Each time, after a few days doing drugs together, his dad would tire of Sebring's schizophrenic antics and kick him out. After Sebring called the cops one night, convinced he was going to die, his friends didn't want anything to do with him either.
Many mentally ill homeless end up on the street because family members have had enough, Donovan said.
"Having a family member with a severe mental illness takes a lot of work and a lot of love and compassion," he said. "I don't think the base line of compassion in this country is high enough to assume that if you have a difficult family member like that you are going to take care of them. For the most part, people find some excuse to tell them to move on. When they do that, these people don't have the ability to deal with life on life's terms and they end up homeless."
A new life
In Sebring's paranoid thoughts, everyone and everything was out to get him. Finding love and compassion in the cold world he was living in turned things around.
Curled up on a park bench at Pioneer Park one night in August of 2007, watching a drug deal go down just a few yards away, Sebring got to thinking. Word on the street was, "Don't go to the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake. They'll get all preachy on you and make you go to church," he said. He didn't much care for church. But, he figured, he cared even less for sleeping out in the weather.
When he got to the Rescue Mission, "Everyone was warm and kind and loving," he said. "For the first time in my life, I felt peace."
There, Sebring enrolled in an addiction recovery program designed to help people who are interested in making the necessary life changes to transition out of homelessness. The mission puts the men up in semi-private bedrooms for a year. With a healthy dose of bible study, group therapy, personal counseling and good-old-fashioned work, the mission helps people to assemble lives for themselves. Case workers coordinate with Valley Mental Health to get people like Sebring the medication they need to manage their illnesses.
The program boasts high success rates. Over 70 percent of men are still employed and housed six months after they graduate, said Chris Croswhite, executive director of the Rescue Mission.
"Sometimes we as a society look at these men as being beyond help," he said. "They aren't beyond help. There is a lot we can do for them — a lot they can do for themselves."
At Valley Mental Health, which gives free mental health care to the homeless, people are similarly optimistic.
"Without treatment it can be difficult to maintain housing due to symptoms," Kelli Olsen Bowers, a licensed clinical social worker at Valley Mental Health. "When somebody is on the right medication, though, they can be very, very successful. They can maintain housing, get a job, even go to school."
Both agreed, the key to success is wanting it.
Sebring quit the drugs cold turkey.
"For 25 years, I tried to quit drugs and I always went back," he said. "At the Rescue Mission, I don't know what was different. I guess I just gave my addiction to Jesus and he took it from me."
He still hears voices, but, with the help of medication, he said, "I'm learning not to listen." When he starts talking to himself at Calvary Chapel while vacuuming or tinkering with some maintenance project, his coworkers just smile.
"Everyone here just loves on me," he said. "I am absolutely happy."
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