Homeless people in the Bay Area have always impressed me. As a Los Angeles native, I’m used to the sight of homeless people, but generally, they operate quietly — sitting with signs and out of pedestrians’ ways. Here in the Bay Area, though, the homeless presence is much more vocal and integrated into our everyday lives. At night, we can hear them screaming at the darkness in the streets outside our bedroom windows. During the day, they surround us as we walk through the city. I’ve been shamelessly approached for money countless times, and other times, invited into conversation about obscure subjects that don’t make sense to the average mind. One can often notice a peculiar look in their eyes, as if they’re lost, or not really here at all. It might be because they’re not.
Homelessness has been a problem on the West Coast for decades. In the 1970s, California led the way as state hospitals deinstitutionalized the mentally ill, moving them into private board and care homes, which had become thriving businesseses. These homes didn’t provide medication or professional medical care for patients, and when patients’ symptoms returned, they would be discharged — oftentimes left to be homeless on the streets. The board and care homes were frequently located in run-down cities, yet as a result of squalid conditions of the homes, many people chose homelessness instead. By 1975, more than 1,800 patients in San Jose had been discharged near San Jose State University, and were described by San Jose’s local newspaper as a “mass invasion of mental patients.”
A study of 301 mentally ill patients discharged from Napa State Hospital between 1972 and 1975 found that 41 percent of them had been arrested. Rather than being put in proper care for mental illness, those who committed crimes were admitted to jails. Thus, the homeless began to be criminalized, instead of being admitted for treatment.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter helped pass the Mental Health Systems Act, which would have provided comprehensive care for adults, children and the elderly who suffered chronic mental illnesses while raising awareness about them. In the original bill he proposed to Congress, Carter noted that “between ten and fifteen percent of the American population … need some form of mental health services at any one time … since 1969, our national mental health research capacity has undergone substantial erosion and our investment in mental health research is now so low that the development of new knowledge is jeopardized.”
Unfortunately, Carter’s term only lasted until 1981. His successor, Ronald Reagan, did away with Mental Health Systems Act at its inception. The funds for the act were awarded as block grants to states, which could use the money as they pleased.
Under Reagan’s policies, an additional 40,000 beds in state mental hospitals were shut down. As Dr. E. Fuller Torrey notes in his book “American Psychosis: How the Federal Government Destroyed the Mental Illness Treatment System”: “The patients being sent to community facilities were no longer those who were moderately well-functioning or elderly; rather, they included the more difficult, chronic patients. In 1988 the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) issued estimates of where patients with chronic mental illness were living, and between 125,000 and 300,000 were thought to be homeless.”
Since then, care for the mentally ill has only gotten worse as the United States has failed to devote funding and effort towards rebuilding mental health facilities. Statistics from 2009 show that 20-25 percent of the United States’ homeless suffer from severe mental illness, while only an estimated 6 percent of all Americans are considered severely mentally ill. The Bay Area in general has become a primary composite for the homeless, as they tend to flock to urban cities. The temperate weather of San Francisco and Berkeley, coupled with greater social acceptance for homeless, leads many homeless to travel across the nation just to get here. In cities such as San Francisco and Berkeley, we have grown accustomed to living with the homeless, yet they still remain on the fringes of our society, because most of us continue to avoid them. We forget that they, too, are humans deserving adequate care, and perhaps the reasons for their homelessness are beyond the stigmas we ascribe to them.
The homeless are not a problem within the Bay Area’s society so much as a cause for concern. We hardly notice the homeless people that strive so hard to remain a part of our society, who have been reduced to living like ghosts walking beside us, lost in the tremor of their own minds. As a fellow sufferer of mental health issues, I like to think that it takes one to know one, and I have a strong sense of empathy for the homeless who suffer. Mental health care shouldn’t be inaccessible to those who need it, including the homeless. With it, perhaps they could live, as Carter petitioned, “vital and satisfying lives.”
Monique Lupu writes the Friday column on mental health. Contact her at [email protected].