Housing First: People with Mental Illness

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People with severe mental illness were once housed by the hundreds of thousands in state mental hospitals. But the “deinstitutionalization” movement that began in the 1960s and gained steam in the ’70s and ’80s changed the landscape — and the challenges that mentally ill people face.

It did not, however, mean the end to institutionalization. “What we have now is trans-institutionalization,” says Andrew Sperling, legislative director for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. People with mental illness leave acute or chronic care facilities without adequate provisions for their housing or support, and end up sliding into homeless shelters or the criminal justice system, Sperling says.

The numbers are stark. The numbers of in-patient beds in state and county institutions for the mentally ill declined from 413,000 in 1970 to 119,000 in 1986. By the 1990s, the number fell well below 100,000.

But in 1998, 283,800 people with mental illnesses were incarcerated in American jails or prisons – four times the number in state mental hospitals, according to the Department of Justice. “These days, the largest single provider of housing for people with severe mental illness is the criminal justice system,” says Sperling.

–NPR Special Report

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Housing Resources: links to organizations that study or help the homeless, from NPR Special Report

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