Asking the Wrong Question, Can Give the Wrong Answer: Housing First Doesn’t Help the Mentally Ill

Ruby (center) has lived in the Palisades Library portico for the past few years. She is often joined by other homeless individuals (right).

Los Angeles can never take care of its homeless population unless it starts asking the correct question: how many people have mental issues?  Is there an institutional setting in which they can be helped?

Jimmy Dean, a homeless woman, who used to camp in Temescal Canyon received housing through the Pacific Palisades Task Force on Homelessness.

She was kicked out, because she threw feces at other homeless, and on the walls of an apartment. Housing was not the answer to her problems. After a two year absence, she was found back in Temescal Canyon last week, screaming obscenities at those trying to help her.

Ruby, who has been diagnosed with mental illness, continues to live by the Palisades Library and is now attracting other homeless, who stand guard by the entrance to the portico. Residents treat her like a feral cat and bring her food – and she has conversations with them. One resident, even went so far as to say, “she’s the smartest woman I know.”

I won’t dispute anyone’s IQ, but intelligence doesn’t have anything to do with mental illness. One day this editor found Ruby lying, not moving on the stone, and had trouble rousing her. She finally came to, and I asked, “Ruby are you okay?” It took her time to focus and then I realized, she had passed out. The alcohol bottles were nearby. She looked at me and started screaming obscenities – she identified me in those rants.

Now, I no longer go close to her, I no longer consider her harmless, and worry that at some point she may “snap.”

The man in front of Gelson’s was probably in his 30s. He had a small cart filled with accumulated items. His shoes were bad and beyond repair. He was standing and staring, when I walked by.

He had a deer leg poking out of the cart. It was a real deer leg, and I stopped and asked him where he got it. He told me he had found it by the Lake Shrine.

I asked him if the Palisades Task Force on Homelessness had contacted him. He didn’t respond. I asked if he needed anything because someone could help him. He didn’t respond and then started staring off in the distance, again. I could feel him watching me as I walked off.  I alerted the Pacific Palisades Task Force on Homelessness, who said they knew about him. Several readers had also contacted Circling the News, because the same man was found sleeping by Corpus Elementary School.

Last week, a woman was walking on Via de la Paz by the Palisades Elementary School during a school day. She had put zinc oxide or some grease, all over her face and was carrying an open beer bottle, taking swigs as she walked. She was talking to herself.

I recognized her as Danielle, the woman who has terrorized neighbors by pooping and urinating on their lawns, living out of her car on Albright Street for more than two years.

Her family has tried to help her. Neighbors have called the police repeatedly, but according to police there’s nothing they can do.

The police have told neighbors that she is not dangerous to self or others – and that she can care for herself. She goes to the local grocery store and buys alcohol.

There appears to be nothing that anyone can do if someone is mentally ill. And as long as they are not wielding a knife or a handgun, they are not considered gravely disabled and can not be held with a 5150.

A 5150 is an involuntary psychiatric hold. According to a speaker at a recent Task Force meeting, Dr. Roderick Shaner, there is a disagreement about whether a person fits into a 5150. “If a person is dangerous to self, to others or is gravely disabled, he/she can be detained for 72 hours,” he noted.

Shaner said, “If you take someone who is gravely disabled and take them to units, in a few days the voices stop, they get meals, sleep and medicine, and they say, ‘I don’t want to be in a hospital,’ and by the way, ‘I promise to take my meds.’ We can’t hold beyond 47 days, but antidotally if we give people proper treatment, they do well.”

Long-time resident and a former Citizen of the year, Chuck McGlothlin wrote Circling the News.

“I appreciate everything the Palisades Homeless Committee has done for our Village. I feel that Los Angeles County should start building Mental Facilities – the number of homeless people with mental problems is estimated at 50 percent.

“These poor people with mental problems need care and support immediately, and we should handle it like a FEMA disaster and start helping these unfortunate people.

“Yesterday at the front entrance to Los Angeles Community College on Vermont Avenue near Hollywood with over 20,000 students, I saw a homeless man defecate on the sidewalk.

“As a civilized society, in the wealthiest country in the world, our lack of concern for mentally ill people is unacceptable.”

We agree with McGlothlin. The question that needs to be asked and then answered is how many people have mental issues and how can they best be helped? Housing first is not the answer for this group of people.

(Editor’s note: many people in California blame Ronald Reagan for shuttering the large asylums, but the real story starts with President John F. Kennedy, and then progressed with the idea that with medication, mental illness was curable, and institutions should be closed. To read the story, visit:…the-mentally-ill/ ‎)

Danielle has lived in her car on Albright for the past two years. Neighbors have complained to police that she is defecating and urinating on lawns.

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4 Responses to Asking the Wrong Question, Can Give the Wrong Answer: Housing First Doesn’t Help the Mentally Ill

  1. ANDY COHEN says:

    Incarceration is housing. The vast majority of homeless don’t throw feces. Housing first means that you cannot effectively treat someone who’s living on the street. Providing housing helps w the paranoia factor that impedes treating them. Housing first, defund the police etc are talking points by those who aren’t working towards a solution. I know you are. FYI Reagan closed the mental hospitals when he was governor. Who cares, making this political doesn’t work. One quick solution could be to put public toilets in various places…but will PP residents object? My guess is yes

  2. Betsy Handler says:

    Housing first is the answer for the unhorsed mentally ill. That is, wrap-around housing with social services available in the same building. The problem with Reagan’s closing of institutions, aside from the fact that they were hellish places, was that the closings were supposed to be accompanied by the creation of social services centers to provide psychiatric and drug treatment services, among others. Of course, the service centers never happened. The wrap-around housing model has been successfully implemented by the Skid Row Housing Trust, among other organizations. People who are unhoused and mentally ill, no matter how uncomfortable for us, cannot simply be reinstitutionalized for indeterminate periods of time. There are better ways.


  3. Sue says:

    May I recommend a book that can be found at the library:

    Elyn Saks’s memoir, The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, is the draconian life story of an intellectually gifted woman.

  4. Sue says:


    There are already a slew of public bathrooms in Pacific Palisades–the woman on Albright can go to Gelson’s, Caruso’s public bathrooms (which are exceptional) or the park. The question is not whether there are bathrooms available, there are.

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