Homeless Are Often Incarcerated for Crimes
The Pacific Palisades Task Force on Homelessness presented two speakers at a community meeting on April 1 at the Palisades Library community room. The topic was “The criminal justice system, and persons with mental health and/or substance use disorders—What are the options and consequences?”
The three speakers scheduled were Ron Hooks (West Coast Cares), Jessica Salans (Community Affairs for Councilman Mike Bonin) and Veronica Calkins (program manager for the L.A. County Office of Diversion and Reentry).
Bonin’s rep was unable to attend the meeting, which basically highlighted three reasons that people become homeless– economic/abusive situation; mental illness; and drugs–and what can legally be done.
Hooks, who works on the Santa Monica beaches with his two sons, described his outreach.
“I’ve been on the beach for seven years,” Hooks said. “We wake them up [homeless] with granola bars and water. It’s a talking point. We ask them where they’re from and how long they’ve been here. And if there’s anyone at home they could talk to.”
He explained that the family component is really powerful and can help the bridge home. Last year, Hooks helped 320 people reconnect with their families and 782 people get into programs. He said that he would give the homeless bus tokens, so they could make appointments—and most importantly, he checked up on them.
“The last thing we do is give a hygiene kit,” Hooks said. “That seals the deal that we care.”
He said that the Pacific Palisades Task Force on Homelessness is using a hybrid of the West Coast Cares model, which is “We’re here for you.”
Sixty percent of the funding for the program comes from the City of Santa Monica and the remainder from private sources. In the first quarter this year, about 74 people were reconnected to their family and 141 went into services. Hooks noted that the weather this winter was a driver to get people off the sand.
He describes his role as “kind of like a coach, to get you on the field, get you playing.” He estimated that he and his associates saw about 3,000 people last summer alone.
Hooks’ model generally works for those who don’t have mental or drug issues. He lets the person know that someone cares and tries to find help.
By contrast, Calkins works in Los Angeles Twin Towers with the homeless who might have mental health or substance abuse issues. The Twin Towers Jail is also the nation’s largest mental-health facility (450 Bauchet St.) and is operated by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department.
The cost to house an inmate is about $205 a day (anywhere from $60,000 to $80,000 a year). Currently the structure is housing 16,600 inmates, which is about 137 percent of capacity. Men make up about 88 percent of the population.
“What’s it like in jail?” Calkins asked and then answered, “It’s loud and cold and dark. There are gnats, urine/feces and lice/scabies.”
And who are the homeless who end up in jail? Some have committed a crime while dealing with untreated schizophrenia.
“A hallmark of schizophrenia is the lack of insight,” Calkins said. With today’s laws, no one can be forced to take medication, unless “they’re found incompetent to stand trial and then a judge can order medication.”
The Office of Diversion and Reentry (ODR) was created by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors in 2015 to develop and implement county-wide criminal justice diversion for persons with mental health and/or substance-use disorders.
Often someone is in jail with a mental health issue, after being arrested for assault (during an episode) or stealing.
If this person is released back into the community “there is no discharge plan,” Calkins said, noting that these people recycle in and out of jail with “adverse outcomes, no treatment and possible death.”
ODR was started to get people the help they need, which may include medication. “We set them up with housing and resources,” Calkins said. “People will usually not stay with a program, but a court-ordered mandate from a judge increases the likelihood they will stay. Once they are on meds, it helps in stabilizing them for the long-term.”
Calkins spoke about the difficulty that families have in getting a loved one with mental issues into treatment.
Currently, Section 5150 of the Welfare and Institutions Code allows a person with a mental illness to be involuntarily detained for a 72-hour psychiatric hospitalization. Police/social workers have to believe that the person is a danger to themselves or others or can’t provide for his/herself. Many in law enforcement feel that the definition is so broad, it makes it hard to bring someone in for mental evaluation—and 72 hours isn’t generally long enough to make sure the person will stay on meds.
Assisted outpatient treatment is the result of California’s Laura’s Law, which allows for court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment for people who have a serious mental illness plus a history of at least two hospitalizations/incarcerations in the past 36 months. The law was named after Laura Wilcox, a mental health worker who was killed by a man who had refused psychiatric treatment.
Another law that Calkins mentioned was Senate Bill 82, passed in 2013, that provides counties with money to “increase capacity for client assistance and services in crisis intervention, crisis stabilization, crisis residential treatment, rehabilitative mental health services, and mobile crisis support teams.”
For those homeless with mental illness, the bottom line is to get them on medication and off the streets into housing.
LAPD’s Rusty Redican, who helps the Palisades Task Force with enforcement, said simply, “It will take legislation to change something. Many of these people shouldn’t be incarcerated. But it’s hard to force people into treatment.
“If a homeless person is jailed for breaking a code, they can be eligible for the diversion program if they are mentally ill,” Redican said.
For those people who are homeless and abusing drugs, the options are fewer. “There is no such thing as locked rehabs and one can’t get a court order for drugs,” Calkins said. “People using drugs do not qualify for the same things as those who are mentally ill.”
She explained that the most abused drug right now is meth [methamphetamine]. “This is an epidemic for all of us in mental health. It fries peoples brains and makes them hostile, and violent.
“It can mirror schizophrenia and if someone has schizophrenia and using meth, it makes it a million times worse,” said Calkins, who noted that “in psychiatric ER’s, 33 percent of those coming in are on meth and in some areas it is as high as 50 percent.”
Part of the problem in dealing with people on drugs is “You can’t make people go into rehab,” she said.