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college students looking at a laptop and working together
by Jackie Menjivar, MHA Manager of Peer and Youth Advocacy

When Rei Scott found himself in an unsafe living situation that severely impacted his mental health, he went to a mental health emergency center to seek help. Instead of connecting him to a housing program, he was woken up in the middle of the night and forcibly sent to an inpatient facility.

Rei, a graduate of Mental Health America’s 2022-2023 Young Mental Health Leaders Council (YMHLC), is now safely residing in a transitional housing program in Columbus, Ohio. But he knows that his experiences navigating social support services – which, according to him, “ranged from mediocre to re-traumatizing” – were not acceptable. That’s why he’s working to improve these systems for other people facing the same pressures he has.

Rei is studying social work at The Ohio State University, and he serves on the executive board for Students with Psychosis and the youth advisory board for Community Shelter Board. He sees a connection between the ongoing crises in housing and mental health.

“I’ve seen a lot of stigma when it comes to things like personality disorders or schizophrenia within the systems that I’ve been in. When you are stigmatizing people who have these mental illnesses that can be connected to trauma, you are not truly being trauma-informed,” says Rei.

“We know that mental health conditions can make you more vulnerable to becoming homeless, but it’s also been shown that homelessness can lead to developing or worsening mental health issues.” – Rei Scott

Safe and stable housing is a basic need, and it can be difficult or impossible to care for your mental health if that need isn’t met. Cyn Gomez, a graduate of the 2020-2021 YMHLC, knows this firsthand. He faced housing insecurity as a first-generation college student at UC Berkeley, and his work would best be described as intersectional activism, organizing in his low-income housing community and the greater Bay Area.

“As someone who’s been homeless before, when you’re not able to have your basic needs met, I think your degree of personhood is scaled back significantly because you’re no longer autonomous. You no longer have the ability to find comfort in a space that you can call your own,” says Cyn. “Even after I was able to find housing, my anxiousness around the sense of home is something that I still grapple with.”

“You get a degree of trauma from being in a position of extreme need, when you’re just hoping that a space decides that you’re worthy enough of taking up a room, or a bed, or some kind of resource.” – Cyn Gomez

While looking for stable housing, Cyn was connected to the Berkeley Student Cooperative. He went on to serve as house president for a year and a half, tackling intercommunity conflict at the unit level. Now, he serves as a board representative, where he advocates for the wellbeing of the entire co-op and represents them in external affairs. A crucial component of the Berkeley Student Cooperative is the fact that it's student-run and student-owned.

“What that meant for me early on was getting involved. I really wanted to support cultivating that community, seeing what we needed to do to keep housing costs low and ensuring that we're undoing anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity in our co-ops,” says Cyn. “We have to acknowledge the gaps in how we're showing up for our members and the gaps in resources that we should be offering. We’re really trying to imagine what housing can look like beyond just providing you somewhere to stay, but really investing in your wellness and your survivability throughout college.”

Cyn saw the way that the co-op’s structure could mirror harmful inequities that exist in other social systems. For example, the group came to realize that the charter for their substance-free house was placing students under a very punitive system. When enforced, there were serious repercussions surrounding the stability of a student’s housing – which disproportionately impacted students in recovery from substance use disorders.

This kind of strict criteria can gatekeep services from the people who need them the most. People with substance use disorders, who are justice-involved, or who have stigmatized mental health conditions can all be made ineligible for support. When housing is conditional on things like employment or education, it can be even more inhibiting.

“I think it's inherently traumatizing to be housing insecure.” – Rei Scott

“When you are homeless, you're reliving a traumatic experience every day, so trying to do other things like keep a job or continue your education can be really difficult,” says Rei. “Most of the people I have met who are housing insecure or have been on the streets, are looking for jobs, trying to get an education, and working really hard to get out of their situations. But systemic pressures are just so much that it’s almost impossible to get out of.”

“There's a huge stigma when it comes to homelessness. There are people who say that there are a lot of resources out there, and people just aren’t trying hard enough,” says Mariama Bah, a graduate of the 2022-2023 YMHLC and founder of Nation of Diversity. “In reality, especially with COVID, everyone is dealing with some kind of [pressure]. A lot of people lost their jobs. A lot of people can’t afford their homes anymore. They have to go through a whole procedure, and sometimes they have to wait for months and months to get the resources they need. That discourages them from trying to get help.”

“I see the overlap between mental health and our basic needs crisis, our housing crisis, disability justice, and so many other interconnected struggles for multiply marginalized folks,” says Cyn. “How are we taking into account all of these various intersections of harm that often get siloed into their own struggles? We don't necessarily see the ways in which they can compound or make folks’ lives harder or their mental health worse.”

“It’s not just housing. It’s the degree of personhood. It’s investing in the whole human and not just the body on the sidewalk.” – Cyn Gomez

In Cyn’s opinion, it’s not enough to throw resources at the issue of homelessness without looking at people and their challenges holistically. It’s something Mariama has echoed throughout her work with unhoused communities.

“It’s about relationship building. When I first started out, I would give out money and food and other resources, but I realized that I have to build a relationship first in order to know where they’re at mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually,” says Mariama. “When we do street outreach, they’ll tell us their problems and be very open. I’ll take them to a restaurant or cafe where we can sit down and actually have a one-on-one conversation. Then I can keep up with them and reach out again.”

Housing insecurity exists on a spectrum, and it can take different forms – from couch-surfing to sleeping out of a vehicle to living on the street. Cyn knows that his experience is just one of many, and part of what he’s trying to do through his activism is to grow class solidarity within the Bay Area.

In the summer of 2022, construction was set to begin on new university housing at the People’s Park, a site with a legacy of activism and protest. Sacramento State Police were called as Cyn and other students protested at the park’s barricade.

“[The People’s Park] is a national historical landmark, and I would say the university has taken it upon itself to weaponize the community in the name of housing, and it has really divided the student body around it,” says Cyn. “I think that that's been one of the most frustrating things because it directly intervenes in the solidarity work that naturally happens between students and the unhoused or non-student population.”

Cyn and their colleagues are urging the college to demystify plans for the dorm’s low-income housing, including specific criteria unhoused community members will have to meet in order to access the planned on-site supportive housing.

“We have to remedy the fact that this is an unhoused encampment, too. It’s a really strong pillar for me to see that students continue to show out and put their bodies on the line [for the People’s Park],” says Cyn. “For me, it's really important to recognize that we are visitors, and we are gentrifiers as well – even as low-income students, we are still playing a harmful role to the community that's naturally here. What does it mean for us to take up so much space, and how do we change that relationship and atmosphere?”

“Know that you are still worthy of resources. You are still worthy of life. You are still worthy of access to shelter. Don’t give up, and reach out to the folks who are opening up their arms.” – Cyn Gomez

All three youth leaders emphasize the importance of finding community support when you’re facing housing and mental health pressures. For Rei, that was online communities like Students with Psychosis. For Cyn, it was the community of mutual aid that had invested in him – and that he had gone on to invest in. And for Mariama, it came in the form of peer spaces like Nation of Diversity’s Circle Speak program.

“Peer support and doing art allows us to open up about how we’re truly feeling and not feel like we’re alone. Sometimes we end up literally crying because we’re in a safe space where everyone can just express themselves without judgment,” says Mariama. “It helped me open up myself when I didn’t have the funds for therapy. I feel like everyone needs this [kind of space.] where people can come together.”

“Even if you haven’t found it yet, there are people out there that see you. You are valuable regardless of what these systems tell you or how they divest from you,” says Cyn.

This Mental Health Month, Mental Health America invites you to Look Around, Look Within to learn about how your surroundings can impact mental health. Learn more in our 2023 Mental Health Month toolkit.

Keep up with our featured youth leaders: 

Rei Scott at @sealikesword  
Cyn Gomez at @thecyngomez  
Mariama Bah at Nation of Diversity

Learn more about Mental Health Month