Homelessness and Mental Illness Go Hand in Hand

By John Grula and Luis Santilena

So very many of the so very many homeless people are on the streets because mental health facilties and programs have disappeared. Simply building more housing will not solve the problem of the homeless mentally ill.

There is now widespread agreement that we have a major homelessness problem in Los Angeles County, including Pasadena. The county now has almost 58,000 homeless, many of whom are living on the streets, in encampments, transitional housing, and sometimes in their vehicles. As the Pasadena Weekly reported in March, the number of homeless in Los Angeles County in 2017 was 57,794, and about three-fourths of these people were living on the streets with no shelter.

The number of homeless in Pasadena has risen by 18 percent over the past year, and many are over 50 years old, according to a report in the Pasadena Independent. These poor souls are destitute and often cling to life by a thread. It’s a situation that we would otherwise deplore if it existed in other countries.
New jobs programs and the creation of more housing, such as building more so-called granny flats and converting motels and National Guard armories into housing for the homeless, are ideas that all have merit. City-sponsored housing funded with various bonds also holds promise. And Pasadena’s Union Station Homeless Services is an example of a wonderful agency that offers a helping hand. They should all be encouraged and supported to the greatest extent possible.

But they overlook an unfortunate fact: Most chronically homeless people are dysfunctional at best and mentally ill at worst. Many could not hold down a job even if one were created for them, and many have difficulty handling routine daily chores, such as paying bills on time. Many also have drug and/or alcohol problems that compound the obstacles that keep them homeless. They need help to improve their conditions.

To its great credit, the city of Pasadena is at the forefront in confronting these harsh realities. Available at the Pasadena Public Library, the city has created Homeless and Mental Health Services which partners the library and the Pasadena Public Health Department to address the needs of library patrons and others who are afflicted by homelessness and behavioral health issues.

The main goal of the partnership is to keep the library accessible and safe for all of its patrons. It offers free homeless and mental health-related services to all library users, including mental health education, case management, peer counseling, information and referrals, and connections to community resources.
It is fair to ask what got us into this situation, with ever-increasing mentally ill homeless people and other troubled individuals on the streets. It goes back to then-Gov. Ronald Reagan in the 1960s and 1970s and other Republicans. When he was running for governor of California in 1966, Reagan over-simplified issues relating to poverty and (in)famously remarked, “send the welfare bums back to work.” Later, he would rail against “welfare queens,” referring to low-income women who needed Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). When he became governor, Reagan continued his war on the weak by engineering the closure of multiple state mental hospitals.

A stark example of the devastation that occurred under Reagan was the closure of the Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk, which at one point, over the lifetime of the facility, housed approximately 40,000 mentally ill Californians. Closures such as this forced the mentally ill onto the streets, and thus our huge homeless problem was born. At least some of these mental hospitals should be revived. It would be a big step toward resolving our homelessness crisis.

It is ironic that Reagan was shot by a mentally ill man, but never wanted to deal with the issues related to mental illness. Nor did he want to deal with the mentally ill veterans who make up a large portion of our homeless population. When he became president in 1981, one of Reagan’s first acts was to eliminate former President Carter’s task force on mental health which recommended federal funding for state mental health programs.

The Republican war on the vulnerable continues to this day. If you depend on Social Security or Medicare and Medicaid, look out. The GOP has long wanted to dismantle these crucial programs, which save many millions of Americans from destitution. It appears the GOP does not care about most Americans, only their rich friends.

This article was reprinted from the Pasadena Weekly, May 17, 2018