By Paul Gionfriddo
There are half a million homeless people with serious mental illnesses in desperate need of help yet underserved or ignored by our health and social-service systems. That number can seem overwhelming, but for me, it’s all about one person: my son Tim.
Tomorrow is Tim’s 30th birthday, and I wish I could spend it with him. But I don’t know where he is, so this year I’ll have to settle for the memories of his childhood birthdays. Tim was diagnosed with schizophrenia over two decades ago, and has been homeless on the streets of San Francisco for the last 10. I am a former state legislator, a former mayor, a CEO of a national organization…and even I couldn’t prevent it. Because people with mental illness become homeless as a result not of bad choices but of bad public policy.
There are many differences between me and Tim…I’m in my 60s, he’s half my age. I’m 5’9”, he can appear towering at 6’ 5”. I’ve got graying hair, his hair is dark. I’m white, he’s black. But all of those difference don’t really matter…the only reason Tim is homeless and I’m not is because he has a mental illness. That’s it. Our mental health system has failed him and countless others, and it’s time to change that.
So I can’t turn back time. I can’t spend his 30th birthday with my son. I will pray as I do every day that he is safe and that one day we can get him the help he so desperately needs. Until then, I’m going to keep fighting just like Tim does every day. I’m going to fight to change our mental health care system, to work to get people the help they need when they need it, and to get this country talking and addressing mental illness before Stage 4. I will continue to fight for Tim and for the millions like him affected by mental and substance use conditions who have not had a voice for far too long.