The U.S. Conference of Mayors met in Santa Monica on Thursday to discuss the problem of the mentally ill homeless, just two days after the city of Santa Monica decided to file suit against Los Angeles County to force it to take more responsibility for the homeless.
Mental health care professionals at the conference reiterated two themes: The number of homeless of all types is increasing and more money must be spent to provide long-term solutions to the problem.
"If we provide housing, monetary assistance, mental and medical treatment along with vocational rehabilitation, we can break people out of the homeless cycle," Dr. Frank Lipton, director of psychiatric emergency services for Bellevue Hospital in New York City, said at the meeting.
"Without providing food, clothing and shelter, you can't get anywhere," he said.
Santa Monica's lawsuit will seek to force the county to provide more shelters and social services for the estimated 1,000 homeless people in the city. Many mental health professionals at the conference estimated that from 25% to 35% of the homeless are also mentally ill.
Different Types of Care
The homeless fall into different groups, and each must be helped in different ways, said Robert K. Farr, acting assistant director for the Bureau of Planning, Development and Quality Assurance, which is part of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.
"The homeless problem has been increasing in numbers to the extent that it is now comparable with the Depression," he said. "When you look at the homeless, you see . . . about one-third of them being mentally ill and another third being substance abusers. And they have to be dealt with group by group."
Farr stressed the need for long-term solutions.
"All of the homeless have some sort of impediment that has knocked them out of the mainstream of life or prevented them from getting into the mainstream in the first place," he said. "Until we recognize that and deal with that we will just keep recycling people in and out and then back into shelters."
Farr said there are an estimated 35,000 to 50,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County, with 3,000 to 5,000 of them on the Westside.
"The solution," he said, "is to provide more money for programs and to change the treatment laws so as to make it mandatory for mental patients to continue to participate in outpatient programs.
"I personally feel that it is the responsibility of government to take care of the mentally ill. The Egyptians, Romans and Greeks took care of their mentally ill. But somehow government has abdicated its role."
Danna Mauch, executive director for mental health in Rhode Island, said that nationwide housing patterns have contributed to the homeless problem.
"In the last 10 years," she said, "one-half of the single-room-occupancy housing in this country has been lost to development and conversions. That is a million units of housing.
"We know what to do about the homeless--the homeless need affordable housing with support services and income if they cannot work.
"People are really hesitant to face that. We need housing and a comprehensive mental health system in place. You cannot have just hospitals and no outpatient services or visa versa or the whole thing will not work."
But money is a problem for many local governments. New Orleans, for example, is economically depressed, as is much of Louisiana, according to the city's director of human resources policy planning.
"In New Orleans, we are concentrating on the new homeless, the people recently out of work," Penelope R. Brazile said. "We don't even have a shelter for families with children."
Brazile said New Orleans is striving to prevent the children of homeless families from growing up with the belief that being homeless is normal because that is all they know.
"All we can do is work to reduce the numbers," she said. "There will always be a homeless problem."