Mentally ill homeless fill streets and shelters amid lack of supportive housing

By Christine Brink

When Melissa Lindstrom got off the bus in New York City, she thought she was getting a fresh start.

She lugged only a guitar and a suitcase when she arrived at Port Authority in 2015. In her mind, she carried a heavier load. Lindstrom had been on probation for four years because of child endangerment charges after she left her year-old daughter and 8-year-old son alone in their home in Riverside, California.

Two weeks before the incident, Lindstrom started hearing voices, she said.

“The voices said they were going to take away the souls of my children,” said Lindstrom. “I thought, if I leave my children alone and walk away, maybe these voices of these beings that I’m hearing would follow me and leave my children alone, and they would be safe.”

A caregiver found the children in the house. Lindstrom’s daughter was bleeding from numerous lacerations. A week later, Lindstrom was discovered more than 300 miles away, swimming in an irrigation canal in Phoenix.

After her children were taken away, Lindstrom said, she tried to commit suicide three times.
Getting off the bus in New York City with her guitar and suitcase, she looked forward to getting a job – and a new life. Instead, she soon joined the ranks of an estimated 8,800 or more mentally ill New Yorkers sleeping in the city’s shelters and on the streets.


Melissa Lindstrom in front of the Port Authority. She became homeless after arriving there from California in 2015. (photo: Christine Brink)


Among the roughly 14,200 single men and women sleeping in the city’s homeless shelters every night, about 4,700 are estimated to be mentally ill, according to the nonprofit Coalition for the Homeless.

In addition, on one of the coldest nights of the year at least 2,794 people were sleeping on the streets, according to a federally-mandated annual Homeless Outreach Population Estimate done in February 2016. The Coalition for the Homeless estimates two-thirds of the street homeless suffer from a mental illness.

The percentage of mentally ill members of homeless families is less certain. Every night about 23,000 homeless adults with families sleep in city shelters.

I haven’t really seen any good data on the number of families or households that has a member, who is living with a mental illness,” said Frederick Shack, who is the CEO of the non-profit organization Urban Pathways. “But I would think that there are probably 10 to 15 percent.”

At Brooklyn Community Housing and Services, which has run a family shelter since 1991, executive director Jeffrey Nemetsky said the facility has experienced “a great increase” in mothers with mental illness.

“Probably up until about five or six years ago, every year we would have one or two moms who would come in throughout the year, who would have a serious mental illness,” Nemetsky said. The shelter houses about 150 families a year. “Now we’re probably seeing regularly around 20 percent of the moms with a mental illness.”

The estimates add up to a conservative figure of 8,800 New York City homeless who are mentally ill.



Single adults

The Coalition for the Homeless estimates that one-third of the single adults sleeping in the city’s shelters suffer from a mental illness. In October 2016, an average of 14,638 single adults slept in the shelters every night according to data from the NYC Department of Homeless Services and Human Resources Administration and NYCStat Shelter census report. The data was provided by the Coalition for the Homeless.


Street homeless

According to the annual HOPE-count made in February 2016, 2,794 people in New York City were sleeping on the streets. The Coalition for the Homeless estimates that two-thirds of the street homeless population suffer from mental illness.

Melissa Lindstrom used to practice witchcraft. The tattoo in her neck is a triple goddess that symbolizes female empowerment (photo: Noah Caldwell)



Lindstrom is diagnosed with schizophrenia. She still hears voices arguing with her, and sometimes she sees people appear out of shadows on the streets, she said. For a while, Lindstrom stayed in some of the city’s women shelters, but didn’t like them.

“I just didn’t feel safe being in a shelter,” she said.

Lindstrom recalled getting a black eye from a shelter dorm mate, who slugged her.

“The woman got mad at me because I didn’t smell very good,” Lindstrom said.
That night Lindstrom slept on the steps in front of St Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue.

Lindstrom is far from the only homeless person who avoids shelters, said Lauren Taylor, deputy director of the Manhattan Outreach Consortium at Goddard Riverside Community.

Taylor runs a team that patrol the streets to encourage homeless people to come inside. But the transition from street to shelter can be challenging.

“It speaks to some of the experiences people have had in shelters,” Taylor said. “Having traumatic experiences from the past and maybe being around other people seems more frightening or stressful than staying outside.”

In March 2016, the city launched its Home-Stat initiative to help the homeless. The city increased the number of homeless outreach workers from 191 to 387, and promised to add 500 temporary housing beds in so-called safe havens, where homeless aren’t pressured to get services from social workers. Some 284 beds had been added as of December 2016.

Homeless people with mental illnesses can be referred to special mental health shelters where there are more staff. But many end up in dorms in regular shelters. Nonprofits like the Coalition for the Homeless and Homeless Service United want the city to create more shelters for homeless people with mental illness. “The supply is not as high as the demand,” Trapani said.
The city Department of Homeless Services did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

One side of a bedroom at the safe haven on the corner of 40th St. and 8th Avenue. Residents share one room with two beds. (Photo: Noah Caldwell)



After being in and out of hospitals and homeless shelters, Melissa Lindstrom returned to the streets, hoping for a normal life. She recalled sitting in front of St. Bartholomew’s Church with a cardboard sign reading, “Please, take my resume.”

After two weeks on the streets, her guitar and suitcase were stolen. Eventually, a man bought her a new guitar, but Lindstrom pawned it.
“I didn’t want to keep losing my stuff,” Lindstrom said. “I didn’t want to invest in clothes, I really wanted to try to get my life together as far as getting a job.”

An outreach worker found Lindstrom on the street, and she agreed to go to a city-funded safe haven on the corner of Eighth Avenue and 40th Street.

About 80 percent of the clients are mentally ill, the staff said. The majority suffer from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression. Safe havens differ from regular homeless shelters by not having any curfews, requirements about sobriety or weekly meetings with case managers.

“What we find is that once we move that barrier, individuals who are chronically homeless are more likely to accept the services,” said Shack. “Once they are indoors and no longer concerned with their very survival, they are a lot more available for the services that we are able to provide to them.”

“More importantly, it provides them with the opportunity to transition to supportive housing, and that’s where the real solution comes in,” he added.

But obtaining supportive housing in New York City is far from easy. Only one in six eligible applicants obtain an apartment, homeless advocates say.

At the safe haven on 40th Street in December 2016, Lindstrom had just gotten back from two job interviews. She was wearing a white form-fitted jacket, and her French manicure appeared to have recently dried. She is now sharing a bedroom with one other person.

“It’s nicer to just have one roommate instead of having a room full of 10 or nine other girls who have their emotional issues you have to hear about all the time,” she said.
Lindstrom said she was offered both jobs, but she only accepted one. She now works in Times Square selling tickets for the Laugh Out Loud Comedy Club. Once she has made money enough, she plans go to the pawn shop around the corner, and buy back her guitar.



The supply of supportive housing, which includes services for the chronically homeless mentally ill, can’t meet a growing demand.

By Christine Brink

For the first time in a long time, Cherita Barbuto, who suffers from bipolar disorder, counts herself among the lucky ones.

For years, she was homeless, bouncing between jail, shelters and the streets. Now she’s living in a modest Bronx apartment, part of a city, state, federal and privately financed program called supportive housing, designed to help get the mentally ill into homes of their own.

These are more than places to live: Counselors check on residents and staff help ease the transition.

But for the mentally ill long-term homeless, there is far greater demand for supportive housing than there are places to live. Barbuto, 56, remembers the day she received a call from a social worker in June 2015 telling her an apartment was waiting for her, a decade after she first entered the city’s homeless system.

“I just started crying,” Barbuto recalled. “She said, ‘Are you crying Ms. Barbuto?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I’ve been waiting for a long time for this.’”

Only one in six eligible applicants obtains supportive housing in New York City, according to several supportive housing experts and homeless advocates.

There’s a lot of competition for the few units of available supportive housing that exists,” said Cynthia Stuart, chief operating officer at the Supportive Housing Network of New York, a coalition representing private nonprofit supportive housing agencies.
“It’s musical chairs with very few chairs.”


Natosha Dunston, 46, in the community space at the supportive housing building where she lives in Brooklyn. Due to blood clots, Dunston had her left leg removed in October last year. (photo: Noah Caldwell)


New York City has about 32,000 units of supportive housing – about half of which are for people with mental illness who have been chronically homeless for at least a year, Stuart said. Homeless veterans, people with HIV and substance abuse problems also can apply for supportive housing.

The apartments may be in a building with only other supportive housing units, with shared community rooms and in-building services and activities. Natosha Dunston, 46, who moved into a supportive housing complex in Brooklyn after 14 months of homelessness, said she found painting classes to be therapeutic. “It’s just like you are free,” said Dunston, who was diagnosed as manic depressive.

In some cases, supportive housing units can be mixed in a building with regular apartments. Social workers, headquartered elsewhere, visit tenants in need.

A 2015 study by the national nonprofit organization Corporation of Supportive Housing suggested a need for 24,155 new units – a majority of them for homeless people with mental illness. The study is based on 2013 data, when the homeless population was smaller than current levels. A 2017 estimate would be even higher, said Kristin Miller, director of the Corporation of Supportive Housing’s New York Program, one of the researchers behind the study.

“There are 60,500 people in New York City’s shelters, and not all them need supportive housing for sure,” Miller said “But you can see that we have a tremendous need for housing and within that supportive housing in New York.”

So far, supportive housing has been funded primarily through city and state contracts, the so-called New York, New York agreements. There have been three agreements since the 1990s. The third one expired in 2016, and advocates want the program to continue.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill De Blasio have not reached an agreement on a fourth. However, De Blasio committed in 2015 to creating 15,000 new supportive housing units within the next 15 years. In April, Cuomo said the state would create 20,000 new units within the next 15 years.

“It will certainly go a long way,” said Catherine Trapani, executive director at Homeless Services United. “But I imagine, frankly, that we could probably fill even more than that. But let’s start with what was pledged because right now we have very few vacancies.”  

The city Department of Homeless Services did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. The city Human Resources Administration (HRA) also did not respond to requests for comment. 


Cherita Barbuto in her apartment where she has a view of Rikers (photo: Christine Brink)


From her window in South Bronx, Barbuto can see straight to Rikers Island. The view reminds her of a past she does not like to recall. Barbuto, who also suffers from PTSD, has been in and out of jail so many times she stopped counting.

“They know my name in there,” she said. “When I walk in they say ‘Ms. Barbuto, what did you do now?’ When they know your name when you are going to a jail, I think you’ve been there a bit too much.”

Barbuto was first arrested in 2002 for selling a bag of heroin to an undercover cop, she said. She was a substance user, and selling drugs helped her earn money to satisfy her habit.

After two years in rehab, Barbuto went home to her apartment in Brooklyn. But Barbuto and her husband, who had custody of their children, split soon after. Like many other mentally ill New Yorkers, Barbuto started cycling between jail and the city’s homeless shelters.

In October 2015, she moved into her apartment in a supportive housing building in the South Bronx. Supportive housing is permanent affordable housing combined with support from professionals such as social workers and mental health staff. Residents like Barbuto pay one-third of their income in rent.

Barbuto, who is now sober, shares a one-bedroom flat with her black cat, Sugar. The walls are decorated with photos of her adult children.

The apartment, in the corner of the building, has two windows, which makes her living quarters  seem like far from a prison, she said.

“At first it kind of bothered me,” Barbuto said of her view of Rikers. “But then I said to myself ‘Girl, remind yourself you don’t want to go back over that bridge.’ So it’s more like a blessing reminder. You don’t want to go back that way.”


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