Your Adult Child with Mental Illness is Homeless. Now What?

Compassionate Love: Displaying compassion for those who struggle with mental illness  (c)2015 Nancy Virden

(This story is true as experienced by a parent whose adult child has mental illness.  Anonymity requested.)

streets of new york at night“But… but… but…” Your thoughts trail off into the more subdued world of imagination and hopes.

Your son, in a rare correspondence, has just told you he is sleeping in the streets and in shelters. Your greatest desire in the moment is to rush to get him, to provide for him a bed, a meal, a bath.

Why is this happening? Why has that beautiful, intelligent, creative little boy grown up to live such a life? Fear and worry rush in to take over your mood again. Will it rain tonight? Is he cold? Does he have anything to eat? Is he safe?

You pause. He is alive, he contacted you, maybe he is seeing a psychiatrist. Maybe he is taking his meds.

It would be so much simpler if you knew where he was. He won’t tell you. He won’t tell you because he knows you will want to rescue him and bring him under your protection. He’d rather roll the dice and try to make it on his own.

This is at least partially understandable! What adult wants to be under the care of a parent, with his or her “suggestions” and anxious comments? So you try to not ask questions or offer unrequested advice.

It feels like you sat on a bed of nails; each dangerous move hurts in a different spot of your body, mind, and spirit. So, what’s next?

Does he know how important his medications are to his wellbeing? Check.  Does he understand he can always come home? Check. Does he have insurance or at least know how to get help? Check.

There are three actions left for you to take. You can pray, ask others to do the same, and keep your door open. He knows he is not rejected. Check. He is in God’s hands. Check.

Now it’s time to let go for today, and take care of yourself. Rest. You matter too. 

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. – Serenity Prayer (circa 1934)

P.S. Special request from a mom:  “Would like to hear how other parents are taking care of themselves and moving on with their lives under these crueling circumstances.”

Comments are always welcome. See tab below to respond. 


NOTE: I am not a trained or licensed mental health professional. I am not a doctor. I speak only from my experiences with and observations of mental illness. In no way is this website intended to substitute for professional mental health care.

If you are struggling emotionally today or feeling suicidal, or if you are concerned about someone who is,  please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Hope and help can be yours.

*photo from

7 thoughts on “Your Adult Child with Mental Illness is Homeless. Now What?

  1. My daughter has suffered with bipolar disorder since 17 yrs old. 42 now. Has held a job for several years at a time, has lived independently. Over past nine years has had psychotic breaks on and off with meds. Past year strong committment to be “chemically free”. Keeps choosing the street. She is now 42 years old. I am a widow over 70 years old. I have been coping with family
    mental illness since I was a child due to my dad’s bipolar. I have found a support group for parents of adults with children who have bipolar. Will attend first group next week. I am hoping this is my chance of living a life with less anxiety and constant guilt:should have, could have thoughts about our relationship. Also has devastating effects on our family dynamics. Understand she is sick as my father was, however, her selfishness is overwhelming. She has also taken to Facebook with unbelievable rage and disturbing videos which my family and friends see. To help myself this is what I do: exercise 4 days a week, volunteer several days a week, have strong ties to my faith and go to bible study. Would like to hear how other parents are taking care of themselves and moving on with their lives under these crueling circumstances. Since our children are focused on self destruction, I think how we choose to keep ourselves healthy needs to be our priority for survival.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Camille for sharing all that. What a road you have traveled! I’m glad to hear all the self-care steps you are taking. You are wise to do so, and now are helping others by sharing your story.

      What breaks parents’ heart more than watching their children suffer? Yes, you MUST take care of yourself. Our adult children need our support, not necessarily our rescue. Rescuing rushes to handle all the adult child’s crises. Parents with a homeless and mentally ill adult child have to carve out for themselves their level of involvement.

      Boundaries are crucial in this. I honor those very difficult decisions you have had to make. I recommend my 9-part series on Compassionate Boundaries, as the information there may be of help.

      God bless,


  2. I do believe there is a stigma and that is so sad because some of the brightest and most creative individuals you would ever want to meet have serious mental illness. I believe that part of the issue is disconnect between community services. Law enforcement, shelters and behavioral health all want to do the right thing but don’t seem to work together. My son shuns sleeping inside as well. His sense of self worth is not there so he deprives himself of basic needs like housing and proper nourishment. Statistics show that one in 5 have autism. This is an issue that will be on our doorsteps in 10-15 years with many who cannot take care of themselves. The time to act is definitely now. Thank you for the links.


  3. My son is Mentally Ill and homeless right here in our small hometown. The conflicting emotions I feel each day are nothing to what he must feel. Bipolar, delusional, hungry, tired, unwashed. He knows he is welcome to come home and get warm, eat healthy food and sleep in a soft bed. He also knows we will help him get medicines that may help. He does not want any of these things and I worry for his safety every single day and night. He is at serious risk for violent crime, physical abuse and drug abuse because he is a kind and gentle soul. What can we do? Where can we go for help? As far as I have seen there is nowhere to find help and nobody to give us advice. We are on our own and must take each day as it comes. This issue is real and pressing and completely swept under the rug because people do not like to talk about it. My thought is that it will become more impactful as each day passes just like anything we don’t like to talk about. This is not going away. It will only become more prevalent in our “I don’t want to deal with that society”. The time is now to do something. We need to figure this out.


    1. I am deeply sorry for your son’s suffering, and yours too. After all, our children are our hearts walking outside our bodies, are they not? The painful bottom line is they are adults and cannot be forced to take care of themselves. Even having them committed to a hospital only lasts 24 or so hours. It’s frustrating because you and I know the illness is distorting their ability to reason.

      Thank you for bringing this up; it is an important discussion. In answer to your question, I believe stigma is the primary culprit, which is why I speak and write about these issues. Our churches are historically the frontrunners in aiding the needy, yet are ill-equipped to handle the unique issues of seriously mentally ill people. Sadly, there is religious stigma too which blames rather than restores those with mental illness. The govenment is lagging in protecting these citizens for some of the same reasons (and you can bet greed plays a role.) I think what needs to be done is best explained in the following article. You are spot-on; if we as a society don’t stop throwing people away the problem will continue to get worse. You can read the complete APA article at:

      16 percent of the adult homeless population has a severe mental illness. In some larger cities, such as New York City and Chicago, that number is as high as 35 percent, estimates Paul Toro, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Wayne State University in Detroit who studies homelessness. Depression, bipolar and anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorders are the most common illnesses among this population… As many psychologists have found, getting housing for the mentally ill homeless is a challenging prospect.

      Psychologists’ research has found that programs seeking to help mentally ill homeless people need these key ingredients: respect for these individuals, housing options they’d actually like to live in and help securing treatment. When those factors are in place, research suggests, the homeless mentally ill have a launching pad that enables them to live a more self-sustaining lifestyle, and taxpayers have a more cost-effective approach than the current carousel of shelters, emergency care and incarceration.

      One obstacle to getting homeless people into housing programs is overcoming previous bad experiences they’ve had with shelters and support programs… [Researchers] found that, of 17 homeless people surveyed, all of them felt like they were being “being ignored, rushed, brushed aside or treated rudely,” according to the study. Thirteen reported they felt discriminated against and that they were dehumanized and disempowered when they visited community health-care centers. When asked about a particular experience with a health-care worker at a shelter, one responded, “[S]he just didn’t care. It was like you were a piece of meat.” Another said of his experience with shelters, “I got treated [poorly] the first time over there, and I’m not going to get treated like that, I’m not going through that again. I’d rather sit here and die on a bench than go over there.”

      Determining the kinds of experiences that encourage people to use housing services is the goal of Alisa Lincoln, PhD, MPH, a sociologist at Northeastern University in Boston. She and her colleagues interviewed 16 people living in the Safe Haven, a transitional shelter in Boston that gives residents their own lockable room and allows them to stay as long as they’d like. The residents Lincoln studied had active substance abuse issues and other mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and PTSD.

      The researchers concluded that homeless people are looking for a place that respects them as fellow humans and adults; a place that feels like home and offers some privacy; and a place that doesn’t have too many rules and restrictions. The theme of respect popped up in interviews over and over again, Lincoln says.

      “For many people with a serious mental illness, being housed has meant accepting being treated like a child,” she says.

      One resident in the study stated that, “When [a Safe Haven staffer] brought me over and she told me I would have my own room and I would have my own key to the room, that clicked in my head. I don’t care how bad it is, I don’t care who lives there or anything else, it’s got to be better than where I was.”

      Interestingly, even when they settled into the Safe Haven, residents still chose to occasionally sleep outside. The Safe Haven only requires residents to spend two nights a week at the shelter during their first month there.
      “Some slept outside because they still had a network and a community on the street, but it seemed that people mainly slept outside because they were slowly adjusting from living outside to living inside,” Lincoln says.
      She says her research shows that unless shelters are willing to tailor their housing programs to seriously mentally ill homeless people’s needs, then they are likely to remain homeless. Just to stay alive on the streets, people develop fierce independence, she says, so programs that don’t respect that independence will often fail.


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