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We Can Do Better

By Mary O’Brien, M.D.

The pendulum has swung too far.  Fifty years ago there were psychiatric hospitals full of mentally ill patients who were poorly treated and even abused.  “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was required reading.  National outrage peaked and psychiatric hospitals closed leaving thousands of patients unequipped to face the outside world.  Alcoholism, drug addiction, and homelessness began to spiral out of control.

Today major cities like New York, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and others have homeless populations overwhelming local resources.  Los Angeles County now has over 60,000 homeless people, and San Francisco publishes a map to help visitors avoid piles of human feces and used syringes.  Police officers are becoming ill as a result of contact with infected people.  Tuberculosis, Typhus, Typhoid fever, Hepatitis A, and scabies are only a few of the conditions smoldering on the streets.  Rape and violent assault are routine.  California now accounts for one-fifth of the homeless population of the entire country.

The two largest contributors to homelessness are mental illness and addiction.  Most cities have laws against sleeping on the streets, but often those laws are not enforced.  Decriminalizing bad or problematic behavior does not make it go away, and permitting squalor is not compassionate.  Homeless people do not represent a big voting block, but government officials have a responsibility to protect public health and safety.  Experience over the last 40 years has taught me something about caring for homeless patients and starting free clinics, so here are a few thoughts:

  • Commit to addressing the problem. If inaction, complacency, and blame solved problems, we wouldn’t have any problems left.
  • Enforce existing laws and give the police the support and back up they need. That is not being “mean.”
  • Triage people in tent cities. Most need help from social services, many need treatment for addiction and mental illness, some may respond to help from church organizations, and some probably need to be arrested.
  • Organize a volunteer force (the local equivalent of the Peace Corps or the Job Corps). Those not in need of acute treatment for mental illness or addiction might be salvaged with a program that teaches basic living skills.  Such programs already exist in some areas.  College and graduate students could volunteer and earn “credits” toward paying off some school loans.  Colleges and universities would need to cooperate, but at some point you have to put your money where your mouth is.  Tax credits could be given to non-student volunteers.
  • Organize mobile free clinics to vaccinate, screen for infectious diseases, and begin basic treatment. Invite nursing and medical students as well as retired professionals to help.  Sometimes people simply need to be asked.  They would need legal protection from malpractice.  Non-controlled drug samples and old medical equipment could be donated.  I know whereof I speak here.
  • Create transitional housing facilities (like senior life care in reverse). Old warehouses and military style barracks could be refitted. California has the largest percentage of billionaires in the country.  Ask them for help.  No one becomes massively successful because he or she has a dearth of ideas.

Fifty years ago some people were abused in mental hospitals.  Now we allow them to abuse themselves and one another on the streets.  This is a massive, complex, and expensive problem.  But failing to address it will have catastrophic consequences for everyone.  We can do better.