Mentally ill at risk of homelessness if untreated

For Billy Semler, a self-described quiet man who spent 26 years as a respiratory therapist, the "hellishness" began four years ago. The one-time junior college football player and aerospace worker was in his 50s.

"I had a business that was struggling," he said. "I had a second wife and she had a little girl, and, um, she came in and said, 'It's over.' "¦ We were having problems and "¦ I had hidden the fact that I suffered from depression from myself for years."

Baring the underside of his wrist, Semler, 61, revealed what he calls his "wake-up call" to what was diagnosed as severe depression: short, thick, white scars.

"I started whittling on a wrist about an hour afterwards, and I went from there to being homeless," he said. By the time he had gotten out of hospitalization, his business and family? "Gone."

Untreated mental illness " whether depression, schizophrenia or another disorder " puts people at risk of homelessness, according to Kaye Rote, executive director of the Mental Health Consumer Council, an advocacy group.

"In many cases, that's what caused the 'spiraling down' effect with them losing their homes, their jobs," she said.

In Oklahoma City, conservatively, 28 percent of 1,930 homeless people surveyed during an annual "point-in-time" count on Jan. 25 said they had some form of mental illness.

While the percentage has remained about the same over the count's four-year history, this year marked the first time the city's homeless population grew, according to Jennifer Gooden, program coordinator for the Homeless Alliance.

"If you think of homelessness as a pipeline, you have people coming into homelessness, kind of moving through the system and then ideally exiting at the end," Gooden said, "and our problem is the exit. "¦ We need places for them to get out of the system." "Emily Jerman

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