Right idea, wrong answer

Homelessness will persist as long as we allow 'environments of destruction'

By Andres Romero 11/09/2006

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This is in part a response to Michael D. Antonovich's guest editorial on Aug. 24, "Homelessness requires long-term solutions."

As a former "resident" of the streets of Skid Row, I have the experience and knowledge to provide harsh but necessary solutions to curbing homelessness. I say "curbing" because, as it stands now, eliminating it completely will never happen, no matter how many rehabilitation centers and homeless shelters the government funds.

Though I have much respect for Supervisor Michael Antonovich and am acquainted with him and his dedication to reaching out to the down-and-out, I disagree with his solutions, which include reforming mental health laws.

Each year, it's the same old song: calls for reform, mobilization or new laws. It's getting to sound like a broken record. Yet nothing ever changes for the better. Rather, it's only gotten worse.

At first, living on the streets of Skid Row was not easy, but because of my drug addiction, I was able to fit right in. I got to know my "environment of destruction," and at the same time I could and would visit or check into the missions, which provided me with a bed, meals, clothes and showers. However, I was unable to commit to a long-term program for two reasons.

One was I was an addict and still inside my environment of destruction. I thank God for the missions on Skid Row because they are a blessing and provide temporary services for anyone seeking help. But here's the problem: As long as they are operating in the heart of Skid Row, they will remain revolving doors for people like me. Although I sought treatment inside their gates, destruction awaited me outside.

The other reason is I was simply not ready to quit drugs. Nor was I committed to changing my life. That's because I no longer had the mental capacity to think for myself; I was too far gone in my addiction.

You see, many homeless people are just like I was, addicted to drugs, and directing them to a rehab center or mission on Skid Row is much like letting an alcoholic stand outside a bar. Sooner or later, he or she is going to go inside. Sooner or later, the temptation to sneak across the street and get a hit is going to be overwhelming.

So here are some solutions. One: Set up or relocate the missions and rehab centers far from Skid Row (which will guarantee a much higher success rate for graduates). Two: As harsh as this might sound, it is vital to utilize the courts to commit the mentally ill, the addicts and the homeless who are serious threats to themselves and others.

For every 25 people who successfully graduate from one of these programs, hundreds upon hundreds more are using the revolving-door method to get by each year. Just think about it: Why commit to a program on Skid Row when you can satisfy your basic needs and then go back out on the streets? I lived on the streets for more than a year and a half, yet each day I was able to eat three hot meals and shower. Each day went by without any change.

As I said before, there are people who are like I was, too far gone to make decisions for themselves. They need the courts to intervene on their behalf. Today, I am in prison (for committing a crime to satisfy my addiction), but nevertheless I am grateful to be here because my health, my mind and my life are being restored -- and not by any services that they have in here, because there aren't any.

I am actually healing because now I am far away from my environment of destruction. I can no longer sneak across the street and get high. Now I have hope for a better future, and a another chance to make something of myself once I am released. Had I not been imprisoned, I would probably be dead by now.

Lastly, policymakers and politicians need to invite former Skid Row residents and grassroots activists -- those who have lived the life -- to the decision-making table to help in developing solutions that will work. As it stands now, because the millions of dollars that have been poured into some of these centers have been in large part wasted, and all by the people who actually believe they are making a difference.

So, while Mr. Antonovich stands at the front doors of such centers calling for fundamental reform of mental health laws, institutions like hospitals and jails continue dumping mentally ill people out their back doors and onto the streets of Skid Row.

If the court system can commit a mentally ill person to an institution for his and society's safety, why can't government also help those with drug addictions, people who can't help themselves because they lack the mental capacity to make a decision? Until they are removed from their environments of destruction, don't expect any amount of mental health care reform to make things much better for homeless people anytime soon.

A former Pasadena-area gang counselor, Andres Romero was convicted of a drug-related attempted robbery and sentenced to 11 years in prison. Contact him care of kevinu@pasadenaweekly.com.

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