Overlooked in Fort Collins: Substance abuse and mental illness among the homeless

Haleigh McGill

Video by Haleigh McGill.

You are walking down the sidewalk along Mountain Avenue in Old Town on a peaceful, warm afternoon. You stop at the sudden sound of someone speaking to you, but you can’t see where it is coming from or even understand what they are saying. You begin moving again, but the voice escalates and seems to be moving around you, convincing you that you are in some kind of danger. The tone is harsh and speaks of violence and inflicting pain. You are in a panic, other people are now looking at you, you can’t see who is speaking but you are sure they are right there.


What do you do?

For most of us, it’s pretty simple – you go to your doctor for a psychological evaluation and create a plan for appropriate, effective treatment.

But what if the solution isn’t so easy, or accessible? What if you’re homeless?

Video by Haleigh McGill.

The roots of substance abuse and addiction run deep within the homeless community for many different reasons, one of the more prominent being the use of drugs to self-medicate a mental illness. 

According to Vanessa Fenley, executive director of Homeward 2020, it was back in the 1980s that mental health issues began to accumulate within the homeless community.

“We saw a de-institutionalization of the mental health care system,” she explained. “That created this situation where a lot of people who needed a lot of care weren’t able to get it, and weren’t able to get housing.”

68 percent of homeless people who participated in Homeward 2020’s point-in-time survey earlier this year reported having a disability. Much of that percentage is due to mental illness. Director Kim Larsen at the Murphy Center suggests that number is likely to be a bit higher than the survey reflects.

“When you see those percentages you always have to assume that it’s probably going to be a little bit higher because it is based on self-report,” she said. “Even if someone doesn’t say ‘I have a mental illness,’ there may be a professional looking at them who determines that there may be mental illness occurring.”


Mental health complications are a major barrier to getting out of homelessness and regaining stability, and they have been shown to quickly diminish the quality of a person’s life if proper treatment and symptom management programs are not easily accesible.

The absence of basic healthcare makes it all too easy for homeless people to fall into a cycle of substance abuse to manage a mental illness, such as bi-polar disorder, anxiety disorders or schizophrenia.

A lot of mental illnesses’ symptoms are triggered by stress. This further complicates the addiction cycle for a homeless person with a mental illness because in addition to the lack of health care, they don’t have a stable, consistent place to live, have a hard time finding a job and they may not have a solid support system in their personal life – all incredibly stressful things to deal with.

To add to the problem, homeless people with mental illnesses sometimes have to be asked to leave the shelter at the Fort Collins Rescue Mission or do not want to stay there because the crowded space can agitate their symptoms.

Hannah Baltz-Smith, Community and Events Specialist at the Fort Collins Rescue Mission, said “They have not had access to health care and that preventative maintenance. … There are some with mental health issues who, being that close to so many people, causes anxiety for them or triggers symptoms.”  

Much of this occurs relatively unseen to the public, compared to the realities of homelessness that tend to be more obvious such as panhandling, negative behavior and substance abuse.

Although the issue of substance abuse within the homeless community is incredibly complex, many people automatically label the homeless as addicts or drug abusers – partially because of inflated stereotypes, but also because those stereotypes stem from some unfortunate truths. While accompanying District One Officer Nick Rogers on a walk around in Old Town, a member of the homeless community shared that his alcoholism is what brought him out onto the streets, away from his four-year-old daughter.

“I’m homeless because of my drinking problem,” he said. “But I don’t really see it as a problem, because I choose to do it.”

Video by Haleigh McGill.

It is circumstances such as this that cause the non-homeless to make negative assumptions about alcoholism or drug use within the homeless community. Potential concerns about a homeless person’s mental health problems or considerations for how they may have gotten caught up in their addiction fall to the wayside.

Ending the assumptions about the more ambiguous, less obvious aspects of homelessness – such as the complex relationship between homelessness and substance abuse – may be an important step to diminishing the boundary between actually getting involved in finding solutions and lacking a reason to get involved. As Larsen said in an interview at the Murphy Center, “You don’t know what people have gone through.”

Other reasons that may push a homeless person into substance abuse and addiction are similar to those someone who isn’t homeless might experience, such as the desire to escape their reality.

Hannah Baltz-Smith said that “some turn to drugs and alcohol because of past trauma … or they’ve lost hope and they just need a coping mechanism so they choose to use substances to numb themselves so they don’t have to deal with the situation they are facing.”

Humans are not indestructible, and no amount of money in the world will ever make us invincible. Homelessness breaks people down, and there are a lot of people right here in our community who struggle with severe mental health issues and other disabilities who need the non-homeless to see them as fellow human beings.

This wisdom comes from Bryan Tribby, a veteran who found himself homeless for two years and now serves on the executive boards for Homeward 2020 and Homeless Gear. He spoke firmly about the fact that truly anyone could end up homeless at any time, and suggested that facing this fact could help the non-homeless to help and understand.

“Rather than pointing your finger at someone, you should be helping them out,” Tribby said. “[The homeless] are us. You are one paycheck away from being out here with the rest of us.”

The issue of substance abuse among the homeless provides our society with the opportunity to either build a wall or build a bridge. As the homeless problem in Fort Collins continues to grow and people continue to suffer, which will we choose to do? 

Collegian Features Reporter Haleigh McGill can be reached at letters@collegian.com, or on Twitter @HaleighMcGill.