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This panel discussion was held in Inner Southeast at Southeast Uplift headquarters

ELIZABETH USSHER GROFF - At Southeast Uplift headquarters on S.E. Main Street, participating in the NAMI-sponsored panel discussion on homelessness and mental illness, were - from left - Joanna, Johnnie, Hans, Paul, Art Sr., and Miranda.Homelessness is before our eyes a lot these days, and rising rents and home prices haven't helped. People lose their jobs, have mental health problems or addiction, and find themselves on the streets, living in cars or in a shelter.

On June 28th the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) hosted an "Evening with the Experts" panel discussion in Southeast Portland on mental illness and homelessness. The six panelists were deemed experts by virtue of having had direct or family experience with mental illness and homelessness, and said they now commit themselves to making life better for others who are mentally ill and without a home.

The discussion was held at the office of the neighborhood coalition "Southeast Uplift", just north of Hawthorne Boulevard, and it was organized by NAMI Multnomah – one of fifteen local NAMI chapters statewide. The state chapter office of the national nonprofit NAMI – NAMI Oregon – is at S.E. 24th and Schiller Street in the Reed Neighborhood. Its mission is to support the fifteen statewide chapters in improving the lives of individuals, and the families of those with mental illness.

Emma Vaughn-Matthews, a Whitman College NAMI summer intern working with both NAMI Oregon and NAMI Multnomah, organized the panel. One of the six panelists was Joanna, a former social worker, who has dealt with severe depression and suicidal ideation. She emphasized how difficult it can be to get help, because it takes so long to get into a psychiatric medical facility, into subsidized housing, or even just to get medications, if you don't have an address. It took her three months to get into a shelter, she said – during which time she developed PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) from being on the streets, and started self-medicating. She also said she had been disappointed and frustrated with the 2-1-1 phone system that is supposed to provide information on social resources – information that can sometimes be outdated.

Several other panelists described approaches taken by nonprofit organizations to aid those who are homeless, and often mentally ill. Panelist Miranda Woods described losing her job, her home, and her beloved boxer dog, Bailey, in 2010. Her experience of losing her dog, as well as her home, sharpened her awareness and sensitivity to the value of pets for those on the streets. In honor of Bailey and his importance to her as a canine companion, she founded the nonprofit "Bailey's Bones and Wishes."

Today Woods provides support to the homeless and their pets, and educates others to understand the importance of these animal friends. Woods knows that people who are homeless can be very lonely and traumatized by being on the streets. "Aside from companionship, the pets offer warmth, protection, therapy and general purpose for living."

She adds that the bond between dogs and homeless people can even motivate those on the streets to stay clean and sober so they can provide food for their dogs as well as for themselves.

Also on the June 28th panel was Paul Underwood, Director of Operation Nightwatch, a nonprofit that provides the homeless with a "living room" of hospitality at St. Stephens Episcopal Church at 1432 S.W. 13th Avenue in Downtown Portland three evenings a week, and also impacts Inner Southeast by serving a meal twice a week at the Clackamas Service Center, near 82nd Avenue and Johnson Creek Boulevard.

Conversation, a donated meal, board games, reading material and donated socks and shoes are offered at the Clackamas location as well as downtown, which help create trust and support in the relationships between Nightwatch volunteers and the homeless. Volunteers from all over the city come to help at the centers. A goal of Nightwatch is to help break down the stigma around mental illness, and focus on people's strengths so they can be open to resources and can begin helping themselves. At the end of the panel discussion, people in the audience said they had gained greater insights into what it is to be mentally ill and on the streets – and how individuals, nonprofits, and NAMI are helping the homeless deal with their challenges.

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