Siren's Song

Helping Your Homeless Neighbors


You don’t have to be on the Key Peninsula long to realize we have a twin crisis of people experiencing homelessness and unsheltered people suffering mental illness. And it’s getting worse.

Pierce County has resources, but residents have found getting those resources to engage on the KP has proven difficult. We have mental health practitioners on the Key but we do not have a county MHP who will respond immediately to our area in an emergency.

Anyone suffering from mental illness needs to be approached with respect. If the individual is dangerous or threatening, call 911.

But while police may be able to remove the person from the situation for 48 to 72 hours, it’s only a Band Aid.

If there is no threat, what can we do?

Remember that your words matter. We have all felt the positive and the negative effects of word choice ourselves.

Everyone wants to feel respected and be shown kindness. These values come through in our conversations and our word choice. It’s important to treat a person who is homeless or in crisis with dignity. I have often had very positive results by introducing myself and asking their name. Ask “What do you need?” instead of “What are you doing here?”

Ask about their hopes and dreams instead of asking how they ended up like this.

Very often a kind word and a listening ear can de-escalate an uncomfortable situation. Everyone is deserving of respect and most of all hope. Sometimes attention from a stranger is all it takes. Think of the power of being the one who could bestow that hope.

Most researchers agree that the connection between homelessness and mental illness is a complicated, two-way relationship. Affective conditions such as schizophrenia, depression, bipolar and anxiety disorders are among the most common types of mental illness in the homeless population.

An individual’s mental illness may lead to cognitive and behavioral problems that make it difficult to earn a stable income or to carry out daily activities in ways that allow stable housing.

Several studies have shown, however, that individuals with mental illnesses often find themselves homeless primarily as the result of poverty, cutting off avenues to treatment, and a lack of low-income housing. The combination of mental illness and homelessness also can lead to other problems, such as substance abuse and violent victimization that serves only to reinforce the problem.

I often hear people focusing on the mentally ill person as the problem, instead of what got them there. If the problem is illness, what’s their path back?

There are community partners trying to resolve these issues. The Key Peninsula Fire Department is working with other entities to create a survey to assess medical services offered on the KP and who is accessing them. Then we will find where the gaps are and what prevents people from accessing the resources that are present.

These resources may help in the meantime: Catholic Community Services 253-383-3697; Shared Housing Services 253-272-1532; Bischoff Food Bank 253-884-1997; KP Community Services 253-884-4440. As always, your fire department is available. Feel free to contact me there at 253-884-2222 or

Anne Nesbit is the prevention and public information officer and volunteer battalion chief for the Key Peninsula Fire Department. She lives in Lakebay.