YAKIMA, Wash. – When Theresa Lumley was 22, the years of abuse she experienced as a child and teen caught up with her. She became homeless and addicted to drugs.
A week ago, on a chilly October night, Lumley was found unconscious on the side of the road – the victim of a fatal hit-and-run. She died Oct. 28 as a result of an impact injury to the brain.
It was a tragic end to a tragic life impacted by drug addiction, mental health problems and homelessness.
Unfortunately, the 37-year-old is far from unusual.
As it happens, Lumley was one of at least 572 homeless people in Yakima County, many of whom fall through the cracks in the midst of various programs designed to help them find a way back into “regular” society.
Lumley’s sister, Elizabeth Ramos, said Lumley was a fun-loving little girl who liked to make people laugh and feel special.
But as she got older, Ramos said, Lumley was raped by at least one family member, physically abused by others and a victim of domestic violence later in her life. The trauma from those events snowballed, and at 22, she began to turn to drugs to make the pain from those memories and other mental health problems go away. She did not say what mental health issues Lumley faced.
“The girl had no chance in life. Everyone took her dignity from her,” Ramos said. “She just wanted someone to love her.”
There was happiness in Lumley’s life. She married and had five children. But in the background, she was constantly battling between wanting to get “better” and needing to numb the pain.
“Homelessness is trauma. No one chooses trauma,” said Ellie Lambert, a Yakima resident long active in homeless outreach and advocacy.
Lumley tried several times to check herself into a facility that would help her get sober and prescribe medication for her mental health problems, Ramos said. But because none of the programs were long-term, or Lumley didn’t have enough money for treatment – she would end up back on the street.
“She kept telling us she wanted to change and get better again,” Ramos said. “She put herself in places that would help for a little bit, but that would be it. It’s sad when our community disregards (some of the homeless) because they have mental problems.”
Decades ago, when someone had a mental health problem, it wasn’t uncommon for them to be institutionalized for life.
But because of the de-institutionalization movement in the 1970s and 1980s, the people who lived in those facilities were pushed out without any plans to accommodate them or others who may need similar services, said Comprehensive Mental Health division director Courtney Hesla.
“Now we’re in a situation where, in Washington, the law says you go to a psychiatric hospital when you’re a danger to yourself or others,” she said. “But when you go to a psychiatric hospital, those are really short stays.”
Blond-haired, brown-eyed Lumley would check herself into a hospital or a detox or other rehabilitation program for a short time. When she started doing better, thanks to medication and stability, the program would graduate her, and she would find her way to drugs again, Ramos said.
“We kept trying to get the state to help, but they had no room,” she said. “They would release her back to me but she would decide she wanted to do drugs and I didn’t allow drugs in the house.”
Where there were once too many psychiatric beds, now there’s a shortage that simply can’t accommodate an estimated 45 percent of the homeless with some sort of mental illness.
So, people turn to detox or assistance programs in their area.
But those programs often require people to fit the program instead of designing a treatment plan that fits them, Lambert said.
As a result, many people – those with and without a home – don’t get the help they need.
“Let’s say you go to a treatment center and they say to come back in 10 days for an assessment” Lambert said. “In 10 days you might not have the ability to make the appointment because you don’t have transportation. Or, that was the day you were lucid enough to make a change and the next day your head turns against you and you don’t feel that way anymore.”
And there are other barriers, such as programs that need a photo ID – something many homeless individuals don’t have – or those that want clients to find housing first, regardless of a desire or even need to stay close to their social network on the street, Lambert said.
“One of the things we have to do for our chronically homeless people is provide programs that address the barriers to getting help,” she said.
Left on her own, Lumley didn’t have the money to continue buying her medicine. So she would turn back to self-medication and prostitution – a vicious cycle. Ramos hopes the community will realize people who happen to be homeless are more than their current situation.
“They dusted (Theresa) under the rug like nothing. And it’s happening to a lot of people,” she said. “No one knows the story of these people out there – why they’re there and where they’re at.”
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