Help for the homeless

October 10, 1990

The sight of a disheveled man or woman in tattered clothes, babbling incoherently or stonily mute as if transfixed by unseen demons, arouses in ordinary citizens mixed feelings of pity and aversion, compassion and fear. The tragic plight of these tormented souls has long been a national and local disgrace, yet until recently hardly any programs existed to offer practical assistance to such people.

Now Baltimore Mental Health Systems, Inc., a private, non-profit service agency, has announced it will establish two mobile treatment teams to reach out to the mentally ill homeless -- a hard-to-reach population that too often has fallen through the cracks of the city's social safety net.

On any given night, 2,000 to 3,000 homeless people live on the streets of Baltimore. Of that number, studies suggest that at least a third suffer from some form of serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, chronic depression or dementia.

Some of the homeless mentally ill are former state mental hospital patients who were turned onto the streets when the policy of mass de-institutionalization was adopted in the 1970s. But many others have never received any treatment at all, even though their illnesses may date from childhood.

The agency has received a $3 million grant to set up teams of nurses, social workers and psychiatrists who will seek out the homeless in alleys and doorways and try to help stabilize their lives with medical, nutrition and housing aid. This won't solve the problem, but it may help save lives when cold weather sets in a few months from now. And it's a start that's long overdue.

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