Vinnie Cervantes, Organizing Director of the Denver Alliance for Street Health Response, noticed something strange about Denver’s famous 16th Street Mall. While public officials and police encouraged tourists to “linger” on the street, they often cracked down on unhoused people “loitering” there. “The only distinction between those two things is whether or not people have money to spend,” says Cervantes.
That distinction underlies the way the United States treats unhoused people and people with mental illness. Many of us have walked down the street in our towns or cities only to find someone in the middle of a mental health crisis. Considering that, as of 2017, 18.9% of American adults experience mental illness, with 4.5% of American adults having a serious mental illness, this person may be our family member, or ourselves. What can we do when we encounter a community member in crisis?