Viewpoint: Homeless Mentally Ill Need Dedicated Help

By Sue Pascoe
Editor

The wet spot grew down his jeans. I felt awful and embarrassed for him, as I watched this grown man, who had urinated in his pants, walk a few steps and then turn and walk back to his possessions on a bench.

It was an early morning on Santa Monica Boulevard and this middle-aged man was one of the many I see sleeping on benches when I go to 7 a.m. yoga.

I wondered, how can we, as a compassionate people, allow him and thousands of other homeless people to live on the streets like this?

There are hopeful signs. Organizations like the Pacific Palisades Task Force on Homelessness (PPTFH) are working humanely to help people move off the streets and into housing. Voters just approved a quarter-cent sales tax through L.A. County’s Measure H to build affordable housing. Voters also approved the city’s Measure HHH, which will raise property taxes by 0.01 percent to pay for permanent supportive housing.

One problem in discussing the homeless is we lump them all into one category. However, if a woman suffers domestic abuse and is living on the streets or if someone is kicked out of a rent-controlled apartment to make room for a new development or if a teen doesn’t have a family or if someone has lost a job and can’t pay the rent, that’s a much different situation than say . . . someone like Timmy, someone with mental illness.

Almost everyone in the Palisades has seen or has heard about Timmy, who had taken up residence on the sidewalks on Sunset. A few weeks back, he took a train from L.A. with plans to go to Seattle, but got off in Portland. Most likely he will return here. 

Before he left, the police had taken Timmy to the hospital on a 5150 (involuntary psychiatric hold) several times, but he was often released within days, and would return to the Palisades with his wheelchair, where he would sleep on the sidewalk.

He has been approached many times by PPTFH social workers, who always seek a permanent shelter for him. At one point he took services, only to leave the shelter after three days because he wasn’t allowed to smoke indoors.

There’s another long-term “resident” in the Palisades who goes through the trash cans at the park’s baseball fields looking for bottles to redeem. She has refused help from PPTFH.

Another Temescal Canyon Park “resident” shouts and lives in an area that is posted “No Trespassing.” She went to a shelter, but moved out and is back camping illegally.

This past week, on two different occasions, Gates Security has detained two homeless men who were found naked in the Huntington Palisades, one near the park, and a second on Chautauqua.

In a study titled “More Mentally Ill Persons Are in Jails and Prisons than Hospitals: A Survey of the States May 2010,” the authors explained that in the late 1880s, most mentally ill were housed in jails. Those conditions came to be considered inhumane, and Dorothea Dix led a reform movement, which resulted in the building of state mental health institutions.

Then in the 1950s, deinstitutionalization began. For once in our country’s history, the right and left agreed on a policy, but for different reasons. Money was saved by closing hospitals, and civil-rights advocates believed that mental patients should not live in an institution.

In a June 2016 article, “Beyond Homelessness,” a San Francisco Chronicle reporter wrote: “Public health experts believe roughly a third—and maybe many more—of all homeless people in San Francisco are mentally ill, many of them battling severe conditions like schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress and bipolar disorder.”

In February’s U.S. Economy magazine, an article titled “Deinstitutionaliztion: How Does It Affect You Today?” noted that between 1955 and 1994, roughly 487,000 mentally ill patients were discharged from state mental hospitals, before the hospitals were closed permanently.

It’s estimated that about 2.2 million people, or about one-third of the homeless population nationwide, receive no psychiatric treatment, and about 200,000 of those who suffer from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are homeless.

And where do the homeless mentally ill go? Do they stay in shelters, take housing? Quite often they end up in jail.

PBS reported in a Frontline program: “For a substantial minority, however, deinstitutionalization has been a psychiatric Titanic. Their lives are virtually devoid of dignity or integrity of body, mind and spirit. Self-determination often means merely that the person has a choice of soup kitchens. The least restrictive setting frequently turns out to be a cardboard box, a jail cell, or a terror-filled existence plagued by both real and imaginary enemies.”

The program also noted, “People who suffer from paranoid schizophrenia, in particular, are likely to be arrested for assault because they may mistakenly believe someone is following them or trying to hurt them and will strike out at that person.”

Our policy of helping has come back to the 1880s: jailing the mentally ill.

It’s time to address, in a serious way, the “homeless resistant”—those mentally ill people who need more than housing.

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