“I’m from San Francisco,” he said. “I like it here, but I think I’ll go back there.”
He sat across from me at the out-of-the-way table I’d chosen in the hope he wouldn’t spot me. He’d followed me through the downtown library as I’d looked through the catalog, hunted for the books I wanted, and picked them from the shelves. And now he’d found me again and put his dirty backpack on the table next to my notebook and the library’s copy of Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, which smelled like some other girl’s perfume. As I tried to read and take notes, he told me a story that was at least half delusion, spun through strands of what sounded like reality.
He was a teenager, about my age, homeless and obviously mentally ill. I was there to do homework and wait for a ride home after school, as I often did. He was there for shelter and perhaps a bit of human connection, while he made plans to get back on the bus and follow the impulses that had brought him there in the first place. I was seeking my own kind of refuge from the schizophrenia that had invaded our home and taken my mother.
I’ve forgotten his name, but I remember his backpack and his restless, persistent chatter. He stood out from the usual congregation of homeless people I saw at the library because he talked to me like a peer. He seemed to want my friendship. And he was so much younger than most of them.
But he was not alone. In the second half of the twentieth century, the massive deinstitutionalization of mental-health care charged local communities, rather than state agencies, with providing services for people with mental illness. These local communities largely failed to provide what people needed, and many fell through wide gaps in the social safety net. Thousands made their homes on the streets. In the 1980s, cuts to social programs and housing services drove a further increase in homelessness.
With the homeless population growing then and in the decades since, buildings with public access—particularly in urban areas—have become de facto shelters. Among them are public libraries. They offer warmth, quiet, bathrooms and comfortable furniture, and they’re open to the public all day.
As libraries have come to recognize their role as informal daytime homeless shelters, many have accepted their responsibility to the people seeking refuge within their walls. Some now follow the lead of pioneers like the San Francisco Public Library. The SFPL engages counselors and a social worker to help homeless patrons gain access to services they need and take steps toward stable living situations. The library’s social worker “estimates that the library has helped more than 60 patrons find permanent housing and hundreds of others find social services.”
Public libraries who decide to help are addressing not only a housing or poverty crisis. They’re also addressing a serious mental-health crisis. Most reliable sources report that about 40 percent of homeless people have some kind of mental health problem, and 20 to 25 percent of homeless people have serious mental illness (compared to 6 percent of the general adult population). Among the most basic services many homeless people need is mental-health care.
The Church’s Responsibility
Like libraries, churches are common points of contact for people in need, including those with mental illness—homeless or not.
So how are churches responding?
According to my research, experience, and conversations with other people affected by mental illness as my own family was, many churches fail to recognize their responsibility to suffering people. They blame people for their illnesses; ask people to go get their problems “fixed” and come back when they’re ready to “contribute”; tell people their problems are exclusively spiritual in nature and solution; pretend mental-health problems don’t exist (or at least aren’t worth discussing publicly); vilify mental-health professionals and interventions; or refer people for professional help and walk away, thinking their job is done.
Ignoring or marginalizing afflicted people does not make mental illness go away; it exacerbates the problem by encouraging silence and leaving spiritual crisis in the wake of abandonment.
The church must acknowledge the challenge of mental illness and our responsibility to vulnerable people. We must provide not only spiritual solutions but also practical help. And we must show our theology is deep and wide enough to accommodate the reality of great psychological and emotional pain.
This is where the church can and should follow the libraries’ example. Here are 6 lessons we can learn:
1. Be places of refuge and safety. If they can find it at the library, people with mental illness certainly should find peace and acceptance within the walls of the church. Basic kindness is a great place to start.
2. Treat people with dignity and respect. Back in 1990, the American Library Association created a guideline for its members: “Similar to a bill of rights, the policy encouraged all libraries to ‘recognize their role in enabling poor people to participate fully in a democratic society by utilizing a wide variety of available resources and strategies.’ ” Can the church do any less?
3. Be friendly. One homeless library patron said, “Nobody acts like I don’t belong here.” How many would say the same about your church? When you interact with someone affected by mental illness, recognize you have come into contact with another human being, made in God’s image, and your interaction with him or her leaves a mark.
4. Know your limits. The head librarian probably doesn’t feel obligated to offer counseling services at the reference desk. But some pastors feel they should offer counseling beyond their skill set. In a mental-health crisis, refer people to professionals. But don’t walk away—they still need your friendship and spiritual guidance.
5. Hire and/or collaborate with professionals. If your church is not in a position to hire them, work with local Christian counselors. They can advise you on general strategies and, if clients consent, work closely with church staff to set up support systems in the church for people who need structured and loving community.
6. Set boundaries. Libraries set policies regarding sleeping and how their bathrooms can be used. What is your community willing to tolerate? How much time can you spend with a person in need? What do you need to do to reasonably ensure safety? What do you expect from people who join your congregation? Set loving and prayerful boundaries, based on the common good rather than irrational fears and prejudice—then lovingly and consistently stick to them.
Essentially, in following libraries’ example, churches can become more like, well, the church. As Paul described it, “God has put the body together such that extra honor and care are given to those parts that have less dignity. This makes for harmony among the members, so that all the members care for each other. If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad” (1 Corinthians 12:23-26).
Does this describe your church?