Helping the homeless: How even in the hardest cases, there is hope

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 20 2011 11:00 p.m. MST

Bill Wellek is in the recovery program at the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake City. He works as a dishwasher and security guard at the mission.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The low rumble of the vacuum crawling along the carpet at Calvary Chapel Salt Lake isn't enough to mask the persistent threats.

"I'm watching you."

"Don't mess up."

"You're going to end up in jail."

Sometimes it gets to be too much for Chris Sebring, and he bursts out in rebellion. "Shut up," he says. "Shut up." But for the most part, the 41-year-old janitor just keeps pushing the vacuum back and forth, back and forth.

He knows it's all in his head.

Everyday is a battle with paranoid schizophrenia. Things are going well for Sebring now. For three years, he has held down a full time job and paid for his own apartment. It took him more than 30 years struggling with drug abuse and homelessness, though, to get the upper hand on his mental illness.

Mental illness ranks third after substance abuse and lack of affordable housing on the list of the most commonly cited causes of homelessness. Between 20 and 25 percent of the homeless population in the United States suffer from some form of severe mental illness, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The percentage nearly doubles if lesser illnesses like clinical depression and anxiety disorders are taken into account.

When it comes to beating homelessness, it's these people who often struggle most, said Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. Many turn to illegal drugs as a means to self medicate.

"Pulling out of homelessness is hard," Donovan said. "Mental illness makes it exponentially harder."

But there is hope. Sebring is proof of that.

The breakdown

Sebring, a short, stout man who keeps his cinnamon-colored facial hair trimmed in a neat goatee, smoked his first marijuana joint in the fourth grade.

His grandmother, who raised him, was a chain smoker. One summer evening, he snuck a cigarette from her stash and took it behind the chicken coop. He lit. He inhaled. And he gagged. The smoke burned his lungs. It tasted terrible. That might have been the end of it, but, just then, his uncle came lumbering through the bushes. Watching Sebring hacking and hacking, the uncle shook his head.

"Don't smoke cigarettes," he said. "I've got something better."

The following decades were a drug-induced blur. Sebring became a drug dealer. He got kicked out of one school and failed most of his classes in the next. He isn't sure when he started experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia. It was hard to tell the drug hallucinations from the schizophrenic ones. He couldn't sleep because the voices in his head were too loud. He self medicated by doing more drugs.

"The voices were relentless," he said.

"Leave the state," the voices told him. "You're an alien." "The FBI is tracking you."

"I just wanted the voices to stop," Sebring said.

At one point he had a wife. They divorced. He had a house. He sold it for $25,000 cash and spent the money on drugs. He moved in with his father a few times. Each time, after a few days doing drugs together, his dad would tire of Sebring's schizophrenic antics and kick him out. After Sebring called the cops one night, convinced he was going to die, his friends didn't want anything to do with him either.

Many mentally ill homeless end up on the street because family members have had enough, Donovan said.

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