Part I: Heard on the Street
By Sharon Byrne
I heard a man shouting the odds outside my bedroom window Tuesday morning.
Living close to the bar zone vibrant Night Life District, one gets attuned to noise on the street. It’s the noises that don’t belong that warrant investigation. These can turn out to be drunken carousing, domestic arguments that have moved outdoors, gang fights, etc.
Our man in the street was screaming about TV – don’t watch it! Don’t listen to the radio! Don’t read the news! It’s all lies and propaganda!
There are days when this view sadly approaches truth. But it’s one thing to question whether media outlets truly provide anything objective anymore in the way of news reporting, and another altogether to preach it wildly in the street to a silent choir of sidewalks, barrier fences, and trash bins.
He was disheveled, dirty, eyes darting back and forth, lips curled. Not. Tethered. To. Reality.
I wondered if I should call 911. But what can they do? Yeah, he’s disturbing the peace, but he’s clearly mentally ill. They can remove him from the neighborhood…but to where? Jail? That’s no answer. Ask Rodger Dodge of the Scanner Report – lots of 5150 calls come in daily. But last I checked, the police aren’t mental health workers. It’s really not their purview.
Except that increasingly, in California, it is. There are reams of news stories and studies declaring that within the ranks of the homeless, a significantly large number are mentally ill. Many of us have had the experience of encountering someone homeless nattering to themselves, gesticulating wildly. If you haven’t…well, you must not get out much.
Citizens and police get the first contact, and we’re little equipped to deal with them.
On the Milpas Outreach Project, where we’re working to help chronically homeless individuals leave life on the street, some team members felt strongly that a couple of our cases were seriously mentally ill. It seems intuitive – if you’ve become an addict living on the street, you might not have had the greatest mental health to start with. It’s probably gotten worse through addiction. But surprisingly, or maybe not, when one of them completely sobered, his repeat drunken violence dwindled to a small anger management issue. Alcoholism had acted as a massive amplifier for a very manageable mental health problem.
Advocates have been ratcheting up the call for mental health spending in this state, but maybe what we need is more funding to the counties for drug and alcohol abuse prevention and treatment. That could help make acute mental health issues associated with homelessness more manageable in each locality, where the problem is experienced.
Speaking of locality, back to our man in the street: so what should you do in a situation like this? Drunk or not, the guy is clearly not in a state where he’s functioning well. Why don’t we have something for people like this?
Turns out we do. Thanks to those helpful online commenters who keep pointing me to Prop 63 – that was supposed to help with these problems.
The good people of California passed Prop 63, known as the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA), in 2004. This tax on the wealthiest 0.1% of California taxpayers, about 30,000 people, is one of only four tax increase initiatives passed in this state. If you are one of these high earners, you pay an additional 1% tax on every dollar you make over the $1 million mark annually into the MHSA, billed as the way to transform California’s public mental health system, with a focus on promoting recovery-oriented programs. Some of the funds were supposed to go to providing direct services to severely mentally ill individuals, and provide new approaches and access to underserved communities. So here’s the help for our man on the street, right?
Er, no. A decade after passage, the state has raked in billions for mental health…and we still have seriously mentally ill homeless people wandering about, unable to get help. Our county’s ADMHS department recently had a rather large…pardon the pun….breakdown. Our sheriff is trying to allocate a wing of the new jail to deal with the fact we have a measly 16 beds in the entire county for acute mental health care. The police have little choice but to book serious cases into jail for a few days or hours to prevent them from being a danger to themselves or others. If we’re going to keep incarcerating the mentally ill, Sheriff Brown wants to at least try to plan adequately for it.
What the heck happened to the Mental Health Services Act??? Where did all the money for the seriously mentally ill from Prop 63 go?
The answer in Part II.