Written by: Ainslie Cromar – Special to the Independent
A mother of two shivered her nights away on the streets of Vancouver last winter. Battling mental illness, she found shelter under the Smith Tower apartments or in the homes of people who abused and stole what little she still owned.
Her daughter Lindsey Norberg, a Clark graduate, was desperate to help but didn’t know how. Her mother was eventually connected with a Vancouver housing complex for the chronically homeless, but Norberg wished she could have helped sooner.
It wasn’t the first time Norberg had watched her mother struggle. She and her family were homeless throughout much of her childhood due to her mother’s schizophrenia.
After her mother’s recent homelessness, Norberg decided to help others in similar situations. She created a website called Lost in VanWA, a “one-stop-shop” of resources from housing assistance to crisis lines and food pantries. The website includes a blog where Norberg posts local stories to raise awareness on the plight of the homeless and mentally ill.
When Norberg was younger, she never noticed the oddities that were caused by her mother’s mental illness. She never recognized it wasn’t normal to live in a car or a relative’s closet.
“As a child, I didn’t know better. I didn’t know it was weird; I didn’t know it was wrong,” Norberg said.
Despite her unconventional childhood, Norberg said her mother was always giving and kind.
Forty-two and a half million Americans suffer from a mental illness each year, and 46 percent live with severe mental illness or substance use disorders, according to Mental Health America. Over 50 percent of U.S. children age 8 to 15 received mental health care services in 2015.
In Clark County alone, 662 people were homeless during January 2015 based on an annual count spearheaded by the Council for the Homeless.
Clark County has a variety of providers who serve children, youth and families, Norberg said. “We have such good care for the mentally ill in Clark County, in Washington, that people move here from all over the U.S.,” she said.
Even with these care facilities, there’s still little awareness about people who are struggling, Norberg said. More help is always needed.
“You give somebody one meal, you give them breakfast, and you know a few hours later they’re hungry,” Norberg said. “It’s the ongoing need that’s never going to go away.”
But Norberg said food isn’t their only need. The homeless and mentally ill also need something that gets them out of bed in the morning.
It’s not just the mentally ill who need help, Norberg said. Those who are struggling have families whose lives are also upended. They need support and encouragement, Norberg said.
Mentorship and education are resources that can help young family members move past these hardships, Norberg said tearfully. Systems like these made the difference for her.
Clark computer technology instructor Bruce Elgort was her mentor and a major influence in Norberg’s life, she said.
Regardless of the challenges with her mother, Elgort said, Norberg was “always trying to push the tools and to ask the questions that you weren’t expecting people to ask.”
Norberg said the mentorship pushed her to do better. She’s currently working as a web designer and pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Digital Technology and Culture from Washington State University Vancouver.
Her mother has found a safe home at Lincoln Place, a housing complex built by the Vancouver Housing Authority. She’s happier than she’s ever been, Norberg said. She’s self-sustainable, so she no longer needs her daughter’s frequent care.
“I couldn’t thank Clark County enough for what they’ve done for me and my family,” Norberg said.
To Norberg, her website Lost in VanWA is a small way of giving something back and contributing tools for change. She hopes it can provide other families access to the same help her mother is receiving. She hopes to turn the website into a non-profit someday.
In addition to spreading the word about available resources, Norberg encourages people to do small things to support the mentally ill.
“When you see somebody homeless and on the side of the street… don’t avoid them,” Norberg said. “Maybe say ‘hello.’ My mother is very very lonely, because so many people avoid her, and you seriously would make her day if you just said ‘Hi.’”