Many people experiencing homelessness on the streets of our cities remain invisible to us… part of our daily lives… but not truly seen. When we are approached by someone on the street for  help, we often hurry past – and out of courtesy mumble, “sorry, not today.” Here’s a challenge for you: the next time you feel yourself picking up your walking speed, ready to give your well-rehearsed response, consider the possibility that your life may connect to the person in front of you. The practice of “Companioning” offers us the opportunity to stop, and walk alongside our brothers and sisters who are suffering from mental illness while on our city streets.

People who experience homelessness and those of us who are blessed to have safe housing may have more in common than we initially believe. In many instances, experience with mental illness can be a point where our lives intersect. If we haven’t faced mental illnesses on a personal level, many of us know of at least one person who has struggled with the disorder. One in 17 Americans suffer from mental disorders and that number dramatically increases among homeless populations. The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) defines mental disorders as “medical conditions that disrupt a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning.” Eating disorders, schizophrenia, major depression, bipolar disorder, seasonal affective disorder, and autism spectrum disorders are among the illnesses classified as mental illness.

According to data collected by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, half of people who experience homelessness also suffer from mental health conditions. In our own communities, hundreds of vulnerable men, women and youth suffer from mental illnesses while struggling to stay alive on the streets. Chaplain Craig Rennebohm, a well-respected local homeless advocate, has been walking the streets of downtown Seattle for over thirty years looking for souls not homeless people. He, along with other trained volunteers, invites people who experience homelessness and suffer from mental disorders into the practice of companionship. In The Way of Companionship, Rennebohm describes companionship as “a ministry of presence on the street and in the community, which builds a trusting one-to-one relationship as a basis for long-term healing.”

The practice of companioning, which includes hospitality, listening, and accompaniment, aims to help people walk together without blame or judgment. The outcomes of companionship are supportive of recovery and wellness, but the process is quite different from the biological approach of a medical doctor. While most doctors and social service workers recommend medication to those with mental disorders, spiritual care is often disregarded. In his work, Chaplain Rennebohm intentionally adds spiritual care as part of the recovery path. “Good spiritual care appreciates the complexity of human beings,” says Rennebohm. That doesn’t mean that the Companioning approach throws the biological needs out the window. In fact, part of companioning is ensuring that a person’s basic and medical needs are met while listening deeply to what a person may need for themselves to be wholly restored. Spiritual care is emphasized as part of the recognition that , “Companionship is a way of faith, ever open to the deepest levels of life, a way rooted in love and in the belief that a healing tenderness is at the heart of every moment.” As one statement says, “the intention of the trained Companion is to listen consciously and with openness and awareness, to the stories and difficulties of others; and to enable at least a momentary reprieve, and to encourage at best a strengthening for the journey ahead, whatever it may be.” Ultimately, Companionship is not about “fixing others” but it is a spiritual response to suffering that is rooted in patience and love, and serves as a caring way during a sensitive time in a person’s life.

To learn more about Companionship and attend a local training please visit www.mentalhealthchaplain.org.

Note: upcoming Companionship training workshop – May 19!!!  Contact: Kae Eaton, Companionship Coordinator | Mental Health Chaplaincy|kae.eaton@gmail.com or  phone 206.631.1824

Thanks to Drea Chicas who provided inspiration and most of the research  for this blog posting!!! 

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