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Taking a deeper look at the intersection of homelessness and mental health

Taking a deeper look at the intersection of homelessness and mental health

Picture of Nicole Hayden

A 2019 USC Annenberg Center for Health Reporting data fellowship allowed me to learn about the unique health needs of individuals experiencing homelessness in the Coachella Valley.

During that reporting, I stumbled on an interesting data point: 44% of the 200 people I interviewed suffered from a mental illness. That is about 20% higher than previously reported federal data.

So this year, I am embarking on a new project.

In 2020, I will take a deep dive into mental health and homelessness in the state of California, which is home to more than 25% of the country’s total homeless population. 

While the leading conversations surrounding homelessness focus on affordable housing, that conversation leaves out the lack of mental health services and specialized housing needed by about 50% of the homeless population. Even if enough housing is built, these individuals may not benefit from it. Our project aims to engage with this underserved population to understand how mental illness affects their daily lives, whether mental illness is the determining factor that prevents them from finding and maintaining housing, and if it was a factor in losing housing to begin with. The project also aims to examine innovative solutions to this health care challenge.

We know there is existing data about the state of homelessness and mental illnesses. We know that the annual point-in-time count asks individuals if they have a mental illness that makes it difficult to live on their own. However, our reporting aims to reveal the specific challenges and needs of those individuals to stay housed.

To accomplish this, we will travel throughout California to interview individuals experiencing homelessness and mental health issues concurrently. We are especially interested in giving a voice to communities outside of Greater Los Angeles County, where much of the statewide conversation is focused.

We will do this through a collaboration between nine USA Today Network papers in California. I will travel to each of our nine newsrooms to work with local reporters to explore local needs.. Our aim is to elevate voices of those typically left out of the decision-making process.

Our series also will focus on solutions journalism to analyze effective policy, programs and practices for addressing the needs of the individuals who are experiencing homelessness and mental illnesses simultaneously, and how those solutions can be integrated in California.

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