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'Good Aims, Bad Results' on Plight of the Homeless

April 04, 1987

Regarding Sherry Bebitch Jeffe's informative article (Opinion, March 22), "Good Aims, Bad Results," there are some related additional issues that I believe should be raised as they may significantly affect the plight of the homeless and the communities in which they live.

The first relates to similar problems of developmentally disabled people as a result of a companion bill passed at about the same time as the troublesome Lanterman-Petris-Short bill cited in the article. That bill is the Lanterman Developmental Disabilities Services Act, which deals with a severe mental impairment that differs from mental illness in that it is usually evident at birth or occurs in early childhood and is of lifelong duration. Cerebral palsy and Down's syndrome are two well known examples of this malady.

The companion bill had as one of its primary aims deinstitutionalization concurrent with the buildup of community based alternatives. But because of strong parental advocacy groups who foresaw the "cart" of deinstitutionalization being put ahead of the "horse" of community alternatives and successfully opposed wholesale dismantling of the state hospitals (now called developmental centers) for the developmentally disabled.

The system of care today, though far from perfect, is generally acknowledged as being much better off than that serving the mentally ill. One very likely reason for this is that the mentally ill population had no similar group of advocates watching over their future. It is one sad element of mental illness that people so afflicted are often friendless and estranged from the family that would normally help them.

Largely as a result of those advocates for the developmentally disabled, their care system in California today consists of a continuum that includes among its resources fully accredited, high quality developmental centers and community facilities of from less than six to more than 100 beds. Also, the community now deploys a system of vocational training workshops, enriched recreational events, and many other services such as medical and rehabilitative. All of this is monitored and partially vended through a statewide complex of 26 geographically dispersed regional centers.

But notwithstanding the strong framework of this system, there is another area that bears illuminating. Similar to the major problem facing the mentally ill, there is an enormous gap between the act's promise and its fulfillment in the community-care system. Training, wages, and standards in community facilities lag far behind those in the state's developmental centers. Underscoring this problem are the frequent reports in the media of client abuse in community facilities.

Unfortunately, however, and in spite of this, the state administration continues to strongly promote de-population of large residential facilities for the developmentally disabled, both public and private, regardless of quality. It is the state's policy to disperse this population to underfunded and poorly prepared small (six beds or less) homes in the community at large.

Many parents and parent groups both question and oppose this policy. Adding to their concerns is that in the last legislative session several bills failed that would have brought some improvements in small-facility funding and quality.

The only one of those bills that made it through the Legislature, Senate Bill 2241, was vetoed by the governor.

It is sad but probably accurate to say that if the state has its way in de-populating its developmental centers and other large residential facilities for the developmentally disabled as it did with state mental hospitals that a new group of mentally disabled people could be joining the growing numbers of homeless now wandering California cities' streets.

JOHN CHASE

Canoga Park

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