Editor’s note: This article discusses suicide and depression. If you are in crisis, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (800) 273-8255 or the Chelan-Douglas Crisis Hotline (509) 662-7105.
WENATCHEE — Still burrowed deep in a sleeping bag, Blaine Bellew woke to find he’d been covered by several inches of falling snow.
“It started snowing again and I could feel it building up around me,” he said.
Bellew, 55, was sleeping in an apple bin in Memorial Park. He’s been homeless since October and has slept in the 4-foot by 4-foot wooden box nearly every night since.
He often spends his days next door at the Wenatchee Public Library, reading biographies or paranormal thrillers. When it closes, Bellew takes his sleeping bag and a couple bags of food over to a bench in the park.
He waits for the foot traffic to die down, constantly worried about getting a trespass citation. When all is quiet, he shuffles down the park path, a slight limp from years of gout slowing his movements.
He scoops out snow from one of the bins, which are used as seating during the Apple Blossom Festival, and drops in his few belongings. A final look around to make sure no one is watching and he settles in for the night.
Bellew is going through a mental health crisis, driven by depression and suicidal impulses, which he said led him to homelessness. His story offers a candid look at those who struggle to get off the streets — and also struggle to accept help for their own mental illness.
Statistically, homelessness and mental illness often intersect. The homeless suffer from mental illness at a rate roughly four times higher than the general U.S. population, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy organization.
It's a challenge for even the best-organized of social service networks to address. In Wenatchee, housing and health services are largely not integrated, according to local experts, leaving a patchwork of private health care companies and shelters run by nonprofits to provide most of the mental health services for the community.
And even when a resource is available, the homeless sometimes struggle to accept the help. Anxiety, guilt or distrust often get in the way, according to local experts.
It leaves many, like Bellew, in limbo and unsure of what to do, where to go and whether even to accept help.
“I’m kind of just spinning my wheels,” he said in an interview in the library last week. “I’m not dead and I’m not alive, like a psychological zombie.”
Instability, stigma and integration
Bellew’s story starts with stability: Born and raised in Wenatchee, he worked for many years as a cook and lived in an apartment with his brother.
But Bellew has also dealt with depression and anxiety for much of his life — they were worsened by the loss of three immediate family members and a beloved pet over the past few years.
Driven by the grief, he said, he quit his job in 2017. He couldn't pay his rent and, facing eviction, he attempted suicide twice in August 2018, he said, and has contemplated it since.
He lost his apartment and then spent several weeks in medical facilities while being treated for severe gout. He was discharged in October and immediately began sleeping on the streets, he said.
Bellew has stayed sporadically at Gospel House and Hospitality House since October. Both are Christian-based emergency shelters for men that don’t offer integrated mental health services.
Both were good resources, Bellew said, but he struggled to adapt to their often crowded environments and strict routines.
“It made me feel uncomfortable, I couldn’t relax. It was a strange environment and with all the comings and goings ... I could not sleep,” he said. “Part of me was thinking ‘I wish I was in that apple bin.’ At least it was quiet and I could kind of just chill down like I’m used to.”
Accepting resources is difficult when homeless, and having a mental illness just compounds the issue, said Matthew Morgan, a support group facilitator and past president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Chelan and Douglas counties.
“As challenging as it is to get the resources you need in that situation, you throw on top of that whatever trauma they have had in their lives and that feeling of inadequacy they have in respect to their current life situation,” he said.
The problem is exacerbated by society’s stigmas against both mental illness and homelessness, Morgan said.
“It’s hard enough to deal with one or the other by themselves. I think it kind of multiplies out when you put the stigmas together,” he said. “The education that needs to happen needs to be directed toward the general public, even more in some ways, than the homeless or the mentally ill themselves.”
They’re also often tackled as separate issues, but addressing mental illness is a crucial first step to permanently housing a vulnerable person, said psychologist Dr. Julie Rickard.
“Unless we partner with mental health in this population, we can do whatever we want, we can have all the housing, but if they don’t have the mental health capacity to manage funds and to manage their life, they’re still going to be homeless,” she said.
Rickard is the founder of the Suicide Prevention Coalition of North Central Washington and the program director of crisis prevention center Parkside ABHS, which is run by American Behavioral Health Systems.
The intersection of homelessness and mental illness is an issue she sees often. About half of her Parkside patients are homeless or on the brink of it, she said.
“A little over a third of people are homeless or are facing homelessness. Almost another 20 percent are in a house but the house is unstable and they’re likely to lose it,” she said. “Part of the crisis they’re in is the housing crisis that has driven them to that place, potentially that is coupled with they couldn’t keep up with their job and the tasks that are required.”
A 2018 point-in-time count found that 26.5 percent of homeless people in Washington state reported severe mental illness. That’s more than homeless individuals who reported chronic substance abuse or were victims of domestic violence, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
There’s no simple way to address the problem, but more closely integrating mental health and housing services would be a good start, Rickard said.
“This is a mental health issue and if we can’t see it and treat it as such then we’ve got a real problem,” she said. “Housing is one part of that, but if we had had adequate mental health care for those people early on, it probably would have solved a good chunk of it.”
Citations, surviving and recovery
Bellew isn’t sure what he’ll do next. He’s currently living off $190 a month of food allowance from the Electronic Benefits Transfer program and has no other income.
He risks a civil citation by sleeping in Memorial Park at night because Wenatchee parks are closed from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Bellew knows he might be asked by police to move on as a result of this report, but said it’s worth it if his story could help someone else. If asked to leave, he said he’ll find somewhere else to stay.
Bellew said he is also still struggling to fight back his suicidal impulses. A reporter provided him with a packet of mental health resources and encouraged him to seek help.
For now he’s focused on taking life one day at a time, he said.
“Now I’m just trying to pick up the pieces,” he said.