by Peter Marin
[dropcap]M[/dropcap]any people I know, among them many “liberals” sympathetic to homeless people, support Laura’s Law as a way out of our mental health morass. And maybe it is. But the law, as it presently exists, raises many issues to consider.
All of us understand that we must radically change at almost all levels our ways of dealing with the mentally “ill,” but does this law really do it in the right way? I am not sure. I think it is important for all of us, as advocates, to study the implications of the law and its consequences for the indigent before we support or combat it.
We do have to remember that Laura’s Law, when and if it is in effect, will be administered by precisely those who have hitherto not done much that is right for the indigent or homeless, and there does seem to be an awful lot of leeway here for violence or harm to be done in the name of “the good.” Nothing is new about that. We are all familiar with frequent abuses of (sometimes) well-meant laws.
If the federal, state and various county mental health departments do not get immeasurably better (beyond the pandemic rhetoric and self-congratulating good intentions), no program — and certainly not this one — will work as intended.
Nor will this work without new facilities, beds and a complete rethinking of outreach tactics and services for street people, all of which depend on the right people being out there — a rare occurrence in my experience.
All the outreach programs I know about rose and fell directly in relation to the quality of their workers — sometimes one or two exceptional ones, a couple of middling ones… and the others? Ah, let us not say it.
Please note that this version of Laura’s Law (how much sweeter, by the way, if misleading, that sounds than Forced Detention or Treatment!) allows law enforcement officials on their own (in the absence of families) to petition for involuntary treatment, and it seems to say nothing about those who cannot be treated at home or within a family setting.
Will we actually build new and better facilities for them? And will people, once placed in them, feel imprisoned or actually helped? And what will happen after?
Without permanent residences and regular contact and attention from genuinely caring others, most folks with mental problems will stop their meds (if they ever start them) and succumb again to the obvious pressures and disorder of the streets. And what happens then? More permanent “treatment,” which is in many instances just another word for institutionalization?
There’s something here that must be remembered: the importance, power and self-evident legitimacy of the human desire and need for freedom and the pain attendant to its loss (which is also not without its mental consequences). As hard as it may be for some of us to realize, many folks who are mentally ill but not threats to others or themselves, and who have little else, rightly prize their freedom above all else, and many of them also (rightly) hate the drugs administered to them as well as the drugs’ physical and mental consequences, about which too much still remains unknown.
Who among us will protect their interests while “helping” them into the programs actually designed more to make us feel safe than to answer the needs of the homeless, indigent and troubled.
Additionally, if I read the law right, someone need only have been “incarcerated” twice in the last three years to justify forced treatment, which can be introduced as a remedy by the police themselves rather than trained workers (ah, if only they could be trusted, too!).
To how many of the homeless does this provision and excuse for intervention not apply? And does the law specify the incarceration must have been for violent acts, rather than simple “life-style” violations? Incarceration for any reason seems to be sufficient. And if a judge unilaterally decides what happens to someone, as the law states, does the individual in all cases have a public hearing and a lawyer provided by the public defender?
What are the allowed processes of appeal? How long can the process take? What happens to someone judged in need of care while they appeal? Where are they as they wait for an appealed decision? And what does “substantially deteriorating” mean? In whose view? By what measure? If no family is involved, who gets to make the call? Is it always someone who knows the person well? And what are the standards of measurement?
It might be relevant to point out here that presently we have an ordinance designed to prevent homeless people from living in their vehicles in Santa Barbara that allows the police to forbid RV parking near various sites if there’s an “excessive number” of RVs present. The chief and the old city attorney considered one to be an excessive number!
Who are we supposed to trust in this matter? Who is to say this new law won’t be used in the old familiar ways to harass, punish and isolate the indigent and the ill, much as has been the case in the past? And who will administer the law? The same people who have messed things up before?
And if someone cannot be treated in the “family” setting the law talks about (which is obviously true for most of the homeless populace), where, as things stand now, will they be treated? In a yet-to-be-built facility in the never-never land of glorious and postponed solutions?
Will we all have the patience to hold off on enforcing Laura’s Law until we have adequate facilities? Or will we rush to place people for the time being in other kinds of locked facilities, whatever they may be?
And if the individuals so treated have no local family to defend them, no-one to slow down the fast-tracking of the law, who will protect their interests or speak for them? (Who for that matter now speaks for the screwed-over vehicle dwellers?)
God knows we have enough trouble finding pro bono lawyers to attend to other homeless rights and deprivations. Given that, who will protect people’s rights? The public defender and his staff? The rest of us? And up to what point? And how to determine that among ourselves?
We are faced here, rather brutally, with a whole series of questions pertaining to the rights of the homeless, and we seem at the moment to have fewer and fewer people interested in protecting them. To what extent does a law of this kind allow us to avoid the need for permanent housing or to short-circuit the longer-range necessity of providing both care and freedom?
Note, too, how throughout various discussions of Laura’s Law, a certain kind of hysteria — i.e., the mention of mass murders and massacres — is used to justify the need to “protect” the community from these more or less alien invaders in our midst. We’ve seen this in one monster film after another recently — apes, strains of incurable disease, evil aliens, aggravated monsters — all about to destroy forever the supposedly happy and satisfying world the rest of us presumably live in.
Obviously, the provision of adequate services and aid to the indigent is an issue that endlessly confronts us, but to what extent does this new set of proposed regulations play to our fear and satisfy our eternal desire to stamp out — by confining the homeless or making them disappear — evil, disease, sin, crime and dirt, in short by “cleaning up” the world as quickly as we can; and to what extent does it actually satisfy the very real and human needs of those whose freedom we are about to destroy in the name of a muddled psychiatric or mental health “science” whose very categories and treatments remain debatable and suspect?
What we need are not only mental health beds but many (many!) “assisted living” facilities where the mentally troubled can be housed 6 or 8 to a house under the (mild) supervision of some sort of house-parent and without onerous rules. Such stabilized settings and non-invasive attention actually might encourage people, via community and a sense of belonging, to take their meds (even though we should all acknowledge the usually unrecognized and deeply unpleasant side effects of the drugs).
In a way, this is how the old (now gentrified or gone) hotels in many downtown areas (San Francisco’s Tenderloin, New York’s Bowery, L.A.’s Skid Row) used to work. Folks — even those on SSI for mental health reasons — had their rooms and the care of pals and could be troubled or odd in their rooms and not on the streets, where their behavior troubles others.
Perhaps if we really cared, we would reproduce that housing before deciding who needed to be involuntary committed to what under any circumstances will be short-lived and temporary alternatives.
Yes, we do manage to house a small percentage of mentally troubled homeless people each year, but we don’t house enough to stem the endless tide of people needing help.
Affordable or subsidized housing does indeed (and maybe should) make us feel a bit better about ourselves, but it remains a drop in the bucket (or a piss against the wind) in relation to what’s needed — once again despite all the self-congratulatory and obfuscating rhetoric we hear around us.
It seems to me that all advocates for the homeless at this juncture should be forced to confront these issues and determine the appropriate public stance to take vis a vis these questions — especially the power given to courts and the police (and not families) to petition for what amounts or will amount to involuntary confinement for those who have committed no crime save to be on the street or suspected of certain tendencies.
All of this sounds to me an awful lot like the usual government arguments in other areas used to justify surveillance, control, invasions of privacy — all of which are always defended in the name of supposedly protecting us from apparent armies of unspecified evil-doers who mean us harm.
If we must struggle to protect freedom from those inroads, perhaps we must struggle in this realm too, as guardians against even the well-meant excesses of the majority. Maybe it is worth thinking about or discussing among ourselves as the campaign for the law’s adoption moves forward.