Craig Rennebohm has been walking the streets of downtown Seattle for more than 20 years. He knows where to find a free meal, what the requirements are to get into each shelter, and where someone can go to get a shower. He knows what time the overnight shelters close in the morning and when the day shelters open. Rennebohm knows how to navigate these downtown survival services not for his own use but for his service to the most vulnerable of the homeless population: those suffering from mental illness. As a mental health chaplain, Rennebohm reaches out to the "least of these" brethren in hopes of accompanying them to healing.
Real Change joined Rennebohm one morning as he walked downtown looking for people who are traumatized, in a major depression, or maybe manic or delusional. Those in such a mental state may be impaired in their ability to find the services they need, follow the rules to prevent themselves from winding up in jail, and interact in a comfortable and productive way with others.
Even for those with full capabilities, the services are not always evident or easy to figure out. As we walked, Rennebohm pointed out a free clinic and hygiene center tucked off the main streets, displaying virtually no signage.
With years of experience Rennebohm has learned how to reach out to the most isolated of people, such as the person standing on the edge of a meal site, too uncomfortable being around others to stand in line. He does this by creating a safe space, introducing himself as a fellow human being, listening to the person's story, and offering his assistance. He may introduce someone to a service provider or stand with them in line. Downtown he walks people to the free clinic and tells them when the meal programs start. In a given day he accompanies a handful of people who he'll follow up with next time on his daily street walks.
An ordained minister with the United Church of Christ, Rennebohm founded the Mental Health Chaplaincy in Seattle in 1987. In addition to direct outreach on the streets, the program involves education and training in faith communities and advocacy work. Rennebohm got interested in helping those with mental illness while serving as a pastor at Pilgrim Congregational (now All Pilgrims Christian Church), where the congregation reached out to the Capitol Hill neighborhood's homeless population. He noticed that some of the people had trouble receiving services because of their mental illness. Later, while furthering his studies, Rennebohm worked in a psych unit and saw that people who were stabilized were sometimes released back onto the streets.
Rennebohm's empathy for those with mental illness stems from his own experience. In his mid-20s he had a major depressive episode and felt utterly alone. "I can't describe what that experience of nothingness was like," says Rennebohm. He needed someone to reach out and pull him back from the brink, and for him that someone was his pastor, Dick Price. "None of us function without the help and support of others," he says. He calls our need for community "primal." Without the accompaniment he received, Rennebohm is sure he too would have ended up on the streets, or even have disappeared by suicide or some other means. In his current work he seeks to provide the companionship he knows is essential to healing, and he encourages others to welcome those with mental illnesses into their communities as well.
Part of the work of the Mental Health Chaplaincy is to mobilize faith communities through education and training to provide community and companionship for people with mental illness. Education is the first step, says Rennebohm, for people to understand the causes and individual experiences of various mental illnesses, from depression to bipolar disorder to schizophrenia. For those who are unsure or even scared of the idea of talking with someone suffering from a mental illness, he suggests volunteering at a place where people are being served, such as at the Community Lunch on Capitol Hill where Real Change met with him. The atmosphere was jovial and welcoming with a team of teenagers volunteering their clean-up services and a health clinic giving out free flu shots.
While religious organizations can provide a community supporting people as they move toward health, Rennebohm emphasizes that these alone cannot meet the needs of people suffering from mental illness. "This is a public responsibility. It's a public health issue," he says. Looking back on the history of mental health care, Rennebohm sees a system failure. As mental health institutions closed, community mental health centers were supposed to open in order to meet people's needs for outpatient services, along with programming to connect people with housing and education opportunities. But "less than a quarter of the community mental health centers envisioned in the 1960s were ever built," says Rennebohm. He blames this on a change in political will in the early '70s which cut funding for the centers and emphasized the criminal justice system as a means of social control.
The results can be seen locally. "The King County jail is still the biggest mental health center in King County," he says. It's an example of how the mental health care system is turned around,with people not receiving treatment until they are at their worst. This is the complete opposite, he says, from other branches of medicine: from how doctors measure a person's blood pressure, for instance, and use preventive measures if it's too high, rather than wait until the patient suffers a heart attack. Similarly, Rennebohm does not think the answer is to have more outreach workers like him walking the streets of Seattle, attending to people experiencing the equivalent of a heart attack. Instead he'd like to see a mental health care system that prevents people from getting pushed to the margins of society in the first place.
Over his years of service in downtown Seattle, Rennebohm has seen the affordable apartment buildings torn down and the shiny new office buildings go up. He has seen the outdoor meal site pushed from City Hall Park to its current location under the freeway. He has seen the homeless population redlined out of the downtown corridor. He points out a sign under a bridge at Yesler and Fourth that lists "rules of conduct" for use of the public city sidewalk. They include prohibitions on sitting, lying down, and leaving any personal property unattended. Rennebohm asks why there are no rules of conduct for the treatment of homeless people.
As our walk comes to an end, Rennebohm says hello to a man standing by a public phone. He has known this man for years and has encouraged him to come to the community lunches. It is progress, Rennebohm says, just that this man recognizes him and can have a basic exchange of words. While trying to get people the care they need in all areas, including treatment programs and medication, Rennebohm recognizes that illnesses of the brain cannot be solved with a simple pill.
"Medicine can re-balance the biochemistry of the brain, but medicine alone can't help people understand their illness, and medicine alone can't restore love in a life filled with fear," says Rennebohm.
You can learn more about the Mental Health Chaplaincy, including information about Rennebohm's book about his work, "Souls in the Hands of a Tender God," at www.mentalhealthchaplain.org.