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February 2, 2023

Guest View: State’s experiment puts lives at risk

World War II changed the face of the world and all the people in it. In California, attitudes on how to view and treat mental illness were changing as well.

Growing up in post-WWII California, we didn’t have homeless people per se. Of course there were people without homes, but back then they went by a lexicon of other names.

Along the way, someone came up with the bright idea of how to make all those folks disappear from our society. They all became “homeless.” This umbrella classification now put everyone in the same box, reducing the category of names for social workers to remember down to one. This, in my opinion, was a great disservice to the desperate families living in cars or wherever they could find shelter. While some problems were common to all groups, the solution was bifurcated. Some families wanted to rejoin society and take personal responsibility for their lives, whereas some others wanted little or nothing to do with rules or social norms.

People have good hearts, and when someone sincerely reaches out for help, people gladly respond. This is why public appeals for money feature sympathetic examples, e.g. those desperate families who want to improve their lives and return to society. Some other groups, as a rule, can and will “con” sympathetic and trusting folks who want to help them. At some point in our lives we have all been taken advantage of. We are even counseled by social workers to not give money to panhandlers as it only continues to enable their anti-social behavior.

From all of this has emerged a well-developed organization which I refer to as “the homeless industrial complex” (HIC). Now the Bible tells us that the poor will always be with us, and that fact is job security for the HIC. Homelessness has become a big business. Charities, nonprofits and political careers all look to the HIC for support. 

Societies are formed by people who agree to live and conduct their lives in socially acceptable ways for the greater benefit of society at large. Belonging often means, to a degree, compromising one’s personal desires to be a member. The degree to which we set aside our personal desires varies by individual. Those not willing to conform tend to live on society’s fringes, where they are less likely to come into contact with those who do conform. The HIC wants to bring us all together into one big happy family. That’s where the friction turns to heat.

Since the end of WWII, there has been a sea change in the way California deals with mental illness. The prevailing thought began with the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill.

The road to deinstitutionalization began in the 1950s with antipsychotic medications followed by the passage of the Short-Doyle Act in 1957, which paved the way for the closing of our state mental hospitals and encouraged the treatment of a patient suffering from a psychiatric disorder to be done in their home community. Then came Medi-Care and Medi-Cal in the 1960s and the Community Center Mental Health Act in 1963. In 1966, the State Subcommittee on Mental Health Services investigated state hospitals and filed a report, “The Dilemma of Mental Health Commitments in California.” The desired changes were the end of lifetime commitments, establishment of due process rights for patients, voluntary treatment and allowing psychiatrists rather than the courts to have the power to evaluate patients.

The Lanterman-Petris Act went into effect in 1969. The intent of the LPS Act was to end the inappropriate lifetime commitment of people with mental illness, while significantly reducing state institutional expenses.

Since then, there have been adjustments to the law. In 2002, Laura’s Law, AB-1421 addressed outpatient commitment. The Baker Act empowers judges, mental health professionals, law enforcement and doctors to temporarily institutionalize individuals who meet certain criteria. For example, if they are mentally ill, they are either a danger to themselves or to others, and without treatment they are likely to suffer from neglect.

Where we used to institutionalize people, now we have gone so far the other way that we aren’t providing care to people who need it. Homeless people on the street, most of whom are suffering from a mental illness and unable to care for themselves, are visible proof that change is sorely needed.

The State of California has been using our communities as part of a great social experiment. Our families now live in bedlam, amongst the formerly interned residents of our now-closed state mental hospitals. When will the state begin taking an interest in looking out for the rest of us? The state needs to re-establish its mental health hospitals, where mentally ill people can be properly supervised and receive proper care, food and medications. I find this more humane than their current situation as seen around town.

Robert Weaver is a resident of Gilroy.

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