So a couple of days ago I’m driving down Santa Rosa Street (Some office machines have cars. It’s a thing.), and on the sidewalk across from Santa Rosa Park I see this fellow I’ve seen around town for years. He’s yelling something to no one and kicking and punching the air, clearly agitated. Next to him on the sidewalk is one of those two-wheeled carts, the kind old ladies take shopping, and it’s piled high with his stuff. It’s pouring rain and this guy’s soaked to the skin, and I drive by—just like every other car—gawk at this spectacle of human misery and anger, and keep on driving.
How we treat the homeless and the mentally ill says a lot about our culture, and what it says is that we’re a bunch of selfish asshats. Where’s this guy going to sleep tonight? Is there a bed in a homeless shelter for a soaking wet, angry, air-kicking man who might very well be self-medicating with alcohol? Are there inpatient facilities for indigent people who aren’t a danger to themselves or others but who clearly need help and are incapable of providing for themselves?
These are difficult problems with no easy solutions, but we seem to have given up trying. We used to be a culture whose social safety net included help for the mentally ill, but these days such folks are more likely to wind up in jail on some petty offense than land in a facility geared to treat their illness.
How we ended up here is a confluence of factors. Many like to blame President Ronald Reagan for closing federal mental institutions, but he was just one element in a perfect storm of neglect. Many accused those federal facilities of being inhumane anyway.
After the post World War II boom when America was flush with money, we instituted many social reforms and created a robust social safety net, but as the rest of the developed world recovered in the 1960s and ’70s and became commercially competitive, American companies saw corporate profits dwindle, and our politics shifted away from social issues to business. Unions lost power. Social services lost funding. One of the casualties of the new “supply side” economy was the transfer of mental health services from the fed to the states, who were ill equipped to shoulder the burden.
According to CAPSLO (Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County Inc.), each night in SLO County, between 2,500 and 4,000 people will be looking for a clean, safe, dry place to sleep. Some of these people are simply down on their luck and will bounce back, but many of them are chronically homeless due to mental illness or addiction—both afflictions that can lead to erratic behavior, which precludes them from beds in places like the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter.
Our disregard for mentally ill people seems endemic. Look no further than the proposed 91-bed behavioral health facility in Templeton, which has not one but two NIMBY groups trying to block it. First there’s President David La Rue and VP Bill Pelfrey of TAAG, the Templeton Area Advisory Group, who claim all sorts of specious planning problems with the proposed facility that didn’t seem of concern for other “problematic” developments. Twin Cities Community Hospital expansion? No problem! Trader Joe’s debacle anyone? Oh wait. It’s not filled with crazy people … unless you call people who drink Two-Buck Chuck when they live in premier wine country “crazy,” and I do.
My favorite group is the screaming eagles of NIMBYism the Concerned Citizens Preventing Unintended Consequences headed by Murray Powell. Unsurprisingly, Powell says the Templeton facility is unnecessary but thinks a smaller 15-bed facility in the South County sounds just dandy because, you know, it’s not in his backyard and that’s where all the real crazy people are anyway, right? RIGHT?
The undeveloped lot in question is owned by retired eye surgeon Harvey Billig who’s been trying to develop his property for years, and potential operator Vizion believes the facility would fit an important community need since the next closest comparable mental health facilities—especially for children—are in Ventura or Santa Rosa.
Of course, this for-profit proposed facility would do nothing for our soaking wet, angry, air-kicking man who might very well be self-medicating with alcohol. Due to his behavior, he’s not going to get into a homeless shelter, and unless he interacts with police who deem him a danger to himself or others, he’s not going to end up in 72-hour observation in county Mental Health where he might get treatment.
If he wants a dry albeit uncomfortable place to sleep tonight, his best bet is to quit kicking the air and instead kick one of the police officers, because for this guy, his only option might be county jail. Is this the best we can do for the most vulnerable among us? If the answer’s, “Yes,” I’m sorry, but that’s just crazy.
The Shredder self-medicates with Luvena™ applied with letters from angry NIMBYs. Send ideas and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.