Throwing Mentally Ill in Jail Does Not Stop Homelessness, Nor Help the Individual

(Zach is a composite of four different young men that I have spoken with by the library, the Rec Center – by the ball fields, in front of Gelson’s and along Temescal Canyon Road. All are between 21-30 years old  – they grew up here or on the Westside. My heart breaks because I can’t help them.)

On an early morning walk along Temescal Canyon Road, I discovered a young man sleeping in the brush. I called the Task Force on Homelessness to see if someone could help him.

There’s a young homeless man, Zach, who has been in Pacific Palisades recently.

He grew up here, and when he was little, played at the playground. Zach was on sports teams, attended school.

The Palisades was, and is, his town.

Then, like many who experience schizophrenia in his early 20s, he slid into the disease where thinking in a logical manner, and a sense of reality, disappear.

Zach tells me he has family. He was on drugs for his illness but stopped taking them. Like many who are on the schizophrenia spectrum, he doesn’t like the side effects, such as weight gain and shaking, and he went off them – and he thinks he’s “fine” now.

I think of his family who are incapable of doing anything – forcing him to take his medication – or hospitalizing him. The family watches in horror, as he became homeless on the Westside, and then “moved” to the Palisades.

More than one of the men didn’t want to speak to me about families and listened politely while I asked. Some don’t remember the last time they spoke.

Recently one went to the Rec Center, and seemed agitated, and the park director and staff called the police. Another was found illegally trespassing at an abandoned home and jailed.

Dr. Stephen Manley, a Santa Clara judge, told those attending the Pacific Palisades Task Force on Homelessness on July 25 that “thousands suffer from untreated schizophrenia and psychotic disorders. Those homeless cycle between the streets, emergency psychiatric services in hospitals and our jails.”

He said that some are so sick they spread feces on public places, but are still not considered gravely disabled, which would allow them to be hospitalized. And until someone is considered gravely disabled, they continue to live – and die – on the streets.

Judge Manley presides over all misdemeanor and felony drug and mental health cases in Santa Clara County, and has for 25 years championed the development of special court programs aimed at getting offenders with mental illness, substance use disorders, or both, into treatment and out of jail

“Jail is the most traumatic place to put a person when they are mentally ill,” Manley said and explained that CARE Court, if passed into law, could provide an alternative.

The CARE Court proposal has passed the California Senate and is now in the Assembly. If this bill passes, it could provide the help that family and friends need to see a loved one receive aid.

The law does not require incarceration, nor does it compel an individual to treatment. “We’re not ordering,” Manley said, noting that you have to give the individuals room to act and then be patient with them. “There’s no way to force someone.”

The law allows a family member, a friend, even a first responder to file in court about the person, who is ill. A lawyer is not necessary.

The Court is required to hear the petition, and a public defender, and a “supporter” communicate with the individual, once there is a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

The Court then orders a 12- month CARE plan, which can be renewed. The plan includes behavioral health treatment, stabilization medication and a housing plan.

The individual begins treatment and there are status hearings and an ongoing review.

Will it work? Manley said that because the individual is part of the plan, there is a more likely positive outcome. If none of the options work, a judge can order a conservatorship.

He said the “mentally ill” are among the most difficult homeless to take care of because “no one wants to house someone who puts feces on walls.”

Manley said there is $1.5 billion set aside for behavioral health in California, but that “counties prioritize the funding for those homeless who cooperate” – and the mentally ill do not generally “cooperate.”

He cited statistics that showed that 150 individuals in Superior Court that had used the CARE method, 46 had been successful, eight had not worked, but the remainder were still in treatment.

“The housing is there,” Manley said, and noted that many service providers don’t want to work with the mentally ill: “the stigma is with the people who working with the homeless.”

About those suffering from schizophrenia and other mental issues, he said, “we need to stop running these people through the courts.”

Sheila Carter (NAMI Westside L.A. Board of Directors), also spoke about the issues she encountered  when her twins, a son and a daughter, faced issues with schizophrenia.

“Most people with gravely ill loved ones are never given the opportunity to help them,” she said.

Audience members thanked Carter for her bravery in describing how her son had cycled into homelessness, eventually being hospitalized, and how her daughter also had schizophrenia issues.

About CARE, Carter said, “it won’t fix everything, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

To listen to the tape and learn about CARE Court, visit:

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One Response to Throwing Mentally Ill in Jail Does Not Stop Homelessness, Nor Help the Individual

  1. 'joy' says:

    Thank you for this article. It’s good to know that programs are becoming more useful and, hopefully, will supplant the revolving jail door. Thanks for the link to more info.

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