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New Life Ministry

At The Intersection of Mental Illness and Homelessness

What causes homelessness? Is it mental illness or drug abuse or early childhood trauma? The answer is yes, yes, and yes. And everything all at once. As Audrey, one of our Shepherd’s Door participants will tell you:

“When you don’t feel hopeful and you don’t feel safe, those become reasons to use.”

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), “drug addiction is classified as a mental illness because addiction changes the brain in fundamental ways, disturbing a person’s normal hierarchy of needs and desires, and substituting new priorities connected with procuring and using drugs. The resulting compulsive behaviors that override the ability to control impulses despite the consequences are similar to the hallmarks of other mental illnesses.”

While mental illness, addiction, and trauma reach far beyond the borders of homelessness, in the spaces of homelessness recovery, it can seem impossible to untangle these threads that are so deeply interwoven into many people’s journeys.

Audrey’s Story

In Audrey’s story (and in most of the stories we hear), drug or alcohol abuse became the trigger that moved them from a housed situation to an unhoused situation. But it didn’t actually start there.

Audrey was adopted by her paternal grandmother at age 9. Yet, her abusive father remained present and influential. His violent and erratic behavior resulted in fear, guilt, and shame for Audrey. She remembers his drug abuse and psychotic episodes as a young child, and internalized them, believing there was something wrong with her. She became anxious around people and battled depression and low self-esteem.

Audrey described drugs as a superhero’s cape. Her cape was a cover for all her pain. Drugs gave her the courage to talk with people, be in a group setting, and be with her family. In time, she says, drugs became who she was, and she didn’t know herself without them.

Deep in addiction, the brain hijacks our normal hierarchy of needs. She needed money because she needed drugs. The fastest way for her to meet her brain’s demand for drugs was to participate in the sex industry. She earned money, and for a while could feed her addiction and keep an apartment. As her addiction grew deeper though, her kitchen sink and countertops overflowed with dirty dishes, the trash piled up, and everything unraveled.

After being evicted, Audrey lived out of her car. It was the summer of 2021 and the weather became unbearably hot. Her air conditioner went out, and Audrey knew something had to change. She found Shepherd’s Door through a Google search and made a phone call that changed her life.

Alisha Holcomb, our Intake Specialist, whose own story includes overcoming mental illness and drug abuse, patiently worked with Audrey supporting her through detox so that she could safely enter the Shepherd’s Door Program.

Audrey shared “I felt relief and hopeful for the first time.”

Health Partners and their Key Role

While working through the addiction recovery curriculum and emotional healing, Audrey was referred to one of our health partners, Cascadia Health.

Shepherd’s Door recovery program focuses on restoring a person to health, holistically. Our staff not only helps women to heal from addictions and past trauma, but we also equip them with life skills. One of these life skills is establishing a primary care physician and learning how to access the care we need to maintain health. Restoring a person back to health requires a broad network of partnerships that share each other’s strengths and resources. We work closely with the Oregon Health Plan to train our participants about their healthcare rights and educate how to use the benefits available to them. We also work closely with Cascadia Health which provides mental health assessments and care.

Recovery is Possible

For the first time in her life, Audrey received an accurate diagnosis: Schizophrenia, PTSD, depression, and anxiety.  She also now understands that her own father has bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, in addition to a drug addiction.

Alisha states that upwards of 90% of Shepherd’s Door program participants come in battling mental illness, some undiagnosed. With proper medication, and a safe community, with an understanding of mental illness and a renewed self-esteem, the real Audrey has emerged and is enriching the community around her. What she once believed was impossible, has been made possible.

“By the grace of God, I am here. It really is a miracle, and I don’t use that word lightly. I’m so impressed (by this program) and I am hopeful.” Says Audrey. For the first time, Audrey sees in herself character traits that point to a hopeful future. She sees integrity, patience, and an ability to focus that gives her confidence to go back to school.

Audrey has a message for others who are struggling with mental health and addiction:

“Joy can be yours. Happiness is possible, there is a way out.”