In 1987, veteran state Assemblyman Frank Lanterman, co-author of the Lanterman-Petris-Short (LPS) Act, expressed remorse on his deathbed over some of the negative impacts that his 1968 legislation had on the very people it was designed to protect: the homeless mentally ill.
A longtime advocate for the mentally ill who also authored the Lanterman Development Disabilities Services Act, which paved the way for the creation of 14 service centers around the state for the developmentally disabled, Lanterman intended for the LPS Act to guarantee a person’s civil rights in the eyes of the law. It would end the practice of committing homeless mentally disabled people for indefinite periods against their will by granting law enforcement agencies the discretion to place a mentally disabled person into a hospital or medical facility for 72 hours of clinical observation under an involuntary hold popularly known as a 5150 — state Welfare and Institutions Code 5150 — if that person posed a danger to himself or others.
However, some are now saying that Lanterman’s 5150 law has actually led to a dramatic increase in the state’s homeless population. Lanterman’s law was “the only time the objectives of liberals and conservatives converged,” said Pasadena Police Chief Bernard Melekian, who has long been an advocate for the homeless and the mentally disabled.
“Liberals said the homeless were being warehoused and conservatives believed we were spending too much money on services. One of the great lies is that the homeless are the victims of changing economics,” Melekian said. “For a very long time, the official myth has been that the average homeless person was an out of work and down on his luck steel worker, similar to the Dust Bowl or the Depression. That’s not true. The vast majority of homeless people are mentally ill or substance abusers, and a great number of the substance abusers are abusing because they are attempting to self-medicate their mental illness.”
The numbers appear to back Melekian up. In June, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority conducted its first homeless count, interviewing homeless people in 500 census tracts across LA County, and determined that LA County has the largest homeless population in the country with more than 91,000 people, including 1,200 people living on the streets of Pasadena. Almost one-third of those people, or 28,431, are dealing with some type of severe mental illness. Another 39,038 are chronic substance abusers.
Still, critics claim that in some cases LPS is being used to violate the civil rights of the homeless and has led to an increase in the number of mentally disabled people being “dumped,” or dropped off by police and other authorities, in dangerous places such Los Angeles’ Skid Row.
Last year voters passed Proposition 63, the Mental Health Services Act, which mandates a 1 percent tax on personal income above $1 million to fund expanded health services for the mentally ill.
And, according to some, like Hasani Gough of the Pasadena Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Psychiatric Evaluation Team (HOPE), Proposition 63 will pick up where the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act left off.
“A lot of the homeless are dying out there alone,” said Gough. “Basically it’s because of a lack of services,” such as counseling, treatment and training. “One of the biggest barriers for [the homeless] is walking through the door of an agency, especially if there is a degree of paranoia.”
This year, 19 homeless people have died locally, up almost 50 percent from last year at this time when 13 homeless people died on the mean streets of Pasadena, according to Pasadena Police Officer Bill Shipman.
Gough and her partner, Shipman, also known as the “homeless cop” because of his work with the destitute, have the task of trying to help them get the services they need.
In most other cities, HOPE teams are second responders after patrol officers have already arrived at a given scene. But Pasadena’s HOPE team is a first responder on calls in which mental health issues may be involved. To get the job done, HOPE heads off problems and actively seeks out those living in parks and vacant buildings and around freeway off-ramps and under overpasses.
“We get to a call and we talk to whoever has information,” said Shipman. “Then we talk to the individual and evaluate them. Sometimes we can get them to go voluntarily. If they meet the criteria that they are a danger to themselves, a danger to others or they can’t provide for themselves, we can put them on an involuntary three-day hold. We use our training to de-escalate situations, and we have been very successful. We have talked many potentially violent people into handcuffs and into the hospital with almost no force.”
The patient may choose to remain, but if he or she decides to voluntarily leave treatment and doctors believe additional treatment is necessary, the patient can be certified for additional involuntary treatment which can last two weeks.
But the system doesn’t always work like that. Sometimes people are not dangerous, but they still need services.
“Sometimes it seems cruel to leave people out there that are severely mentally ill, paranoid and delusional and not taking care of themselves,” said Shipman. “Sometimes when they do get services the system is so overwhelmed that they don’t stay the three days, and even if they stay the three days they don’t meet the criteria for a follow up, and then they are right back where they started from.”
In 2004, the Pasadena Community Development Commission approved the city’s 10-year plan to end homelessness, making it the second city in the state, along with San Francisco, to implement such an idea.
The plan identifies strategies to work toward ending homelessness: supporting existing services to homeless individuals and families, ending chronic homelessness and strengthening homeless-prevention efforts.
On Nov. 21, the Pasadena City Council approved a plan to hire a coordinator to implement the plan and establish a software program to track people’s whereabouts and progress.
“It’s the product of over a year’s work by agencies and individuals who are working hard to deal with a problem of homeless in Pasadena,” said Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard.
The plan is based on a survey that was taken in February 2005 that showed half of Pasadena’s homeless population is chronically homeless and have been on the streets for a year or more.
“The idea is not to just get them through today with a decent meal but to get them back in the mainstream with housing, a job and self-esteem. This plan represents a new commitment to achieve that goal,” Bogaard said.
Proposition 63 will fund expan-ded health services for mentally ill children, adults and seniors, and provide funds to counties to expand services and develop programs for mentally ill children, adults and seniors; require California to develop mental health service programs, including prevention, early intervention, education and training programs; and prohibit the state from decreasing funding levels for mental health services below current levels.
“I think it’s going to have serious impact,” Tim Kelly, an advocate for mental health care reform who works at Fuller Seminary, said of Proposition 63. “My hope is we begin to break the vicious cycle. We need to provide flexible, innovative community service in the home, workplace, wherever it’s needed, rather than waiting for the disabled to show up at a center. Many of the homeless are managing serious mental illness and often it includes a psychotic feature. It’s a tremendous problem. The new money from 63 will not just add to the status quo, but transform the system.”
Once that happens, perhaps there will be fewer experiences than the one Darlene Matthews said she recently went through. Matthews, a 42-year-old homeless woman in Pasadena, remembers the night she was taken to the Veteran’s Administration in West Los Angeles on a bogus 5150 from Central Park in Pasadena, and was left there.
“The police lied to the emergency room and said I was suicidal, and left me there. The VA said I didn’t need any services, so I ended up sleeping behind a trashcan that night.
“Some of [the police] are nice and some are pretty horrible. Some of them really hate the homeless and it’s obvious.”
For years police officers have removed homeless people from their respective communities by driving them to skid row in downtown LA or to Santa Monica and dumping them there. Law enforcement officials had long denied the claim, but in September an LAPD captain told the LA Times that he witnessed two Sheriff’s deputies leaving a homeless man on Skid Row. From there, the Times published a series of stories on the homeless and their treatment at the hands of authorities.
LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has called for a probe, and in December the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors ordered the Sheriff’s Department to cease this practice, a practice Melekian called “unacceptable and abhorrent.”
“But I think that the reality is we as a society dump the homeless. Our shelters are inadequate and our services are a joke,” said the chief.
Society’s homeless dumping problems began in 1967. Back then, there were 11 California state mental hospitals, housing 37,000 mental patients, many who were held against their will. Local and federal agencies feuded over who was accountable for funding these institutions as the ACLU began suing the state, claiming the civil rights of the patients were being violated.
Lanterman, who was a Republican assemblyman, teamed with Democrats Nicholas Petris and Alan Short to co-author LPS.
Touting the LPS Act as legislation that would return civil rights to the mentally disabled and improve services by deinstitutionalizing mental health, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the bill. When the LPS Act went into effect on July 1, 1972, however, it had an unforeseeable side effect.
Thousands of previously institutionalized mentally ill and physically disabled people had no place to go as the services they were promised were not funded and in some places proved to be nonexistent. Unable to receive services, and with nowhere to go, many of the former patients ended up on the streets.
“The plan was to have services to deliver,” said Shipman. “But the money didn’t follow the idea.”
Historians believe skid rows such as LA’s began springing up across the country during the 1920s, with the first appearing in Seattle, near the Yesler lumber yards on Yesler Way. Skid Row is so named because logs were skidded into the water for delivery to the mills during the Great Depression. The name Skid Row became forever associated everywhere with people that society forgot.
According to Orlando Ward, spokesperson for the Midnight Mission, one of 11 missions in Los Angeles that provides services to the homeless, the size of LA’s Skid Row changes according to the time of day.
“At noon it’s only eight square blocks,” said Ward. “But at 6 p.m. it’s anywhere between 12 and 14 square blocks after the homeless come back from their daily chores of surviving. There is very little panhandling that goes on here. There is a sense of lawlessness. You can feel it almost immediately on certain blocks. It’s not appropriate to drop people off without helping them make a connection. We won’t refuse anyone services, nor will we ask how they got here, but it does put that person in danger, particularly if they are not familiar with skid row. There are a number of people that are actively using drugs and experiencing untreated mental illness and an assortment of vices down here. Dumping defeats the purpose if the intent was to get them away from their problem.”
Joel John Roberts, author of “How to Increase Homelessness” and CEO of Partners and People Assisting the Homeless, said in 1970 the homeless population was so small that no statistics were kept. However, in the early 1980s there were only 25,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County, compared to today’s 91,000 people living on the streets.
Apparently later in life, Lanterman considered the LPS Act itself to be a mistake. His former secretary, Elaine Dewees, once told a local newspaper that Lanterman said days before his death in 1987 that the law needed to be changed and that he had wanted to help the mentally ill; that he never meant for it to prevent the disabled from receiving care.
“It’s a pretty awful piece of history,” said Sandra Naylor Goodwin, executive director of the California Institute for Mental Health. “People who were being held were reviewed with the new criteria, and if they did not meet it they were released. Some of them had been in the hospitals for so long that they had lost contact with family members. Others were placed in board and care, but the services in the community were so bad that they eventually became frustrated and left.”