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Mental health care: From the snake pit to the streets

Illustration of a person suffering from mental illness. (Image: GrAl, via Shutterstock)

“California began emptying its mental hospitals 30 years ago (in 1967), when community based care was touted as the more humane alternative. As thousands of homeless mentally ill wander city streets, or end up in jail or prison, policy-makers wonder: Where is this ‘community care’, and isn’t there a better way?” – California Journal, 1997

“There are a lot of pieces to this puzzle, and we need to look at it as a whole – courts, prisons, police, state hospitals, community programs – and re-engineer a system that works better.” Randall Hagar, California Psychiatric Association, Capitol Weekly, 2011

“The State of California is treating homelessness as a real emergency – because it is one.” Gov. Gavin Newsom, State Budget Preview, Jan. 8, 2020

The modern history of mental-health care in California begins more than half a century ago with passage of the landmark 1967 Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, an ambitious — but ultimately disastrous —  overhaul of a draconian “system” of hoary old mental hospitals throughout California.

Most of the hospitals were closed, but the “community care” that was to take their place never materialized. Laws were changed to prevent forced institutionalization, and increasing numbers of mentally ill Californians wandered the streets, or languished in jails and prisons. Skyrocketing housing costs forced more people out of their homes, and California now leads the nation in the number of homeless people on its streets.

Residents – “inmates” was a more apt term – shuffled around in grimy “day rooms,” watched TV, or were confined to bleak dorms with few programs.

As Gov. Gavin Newsom, with great fanfare and reams of statistics, launches his ambitious $1.4 billion budget plan targeting mental illness and homelessness, there is both hope and a question: Will it really mean lasting change?

The odds are not good.

First, some history.

For decades, thousands of mentally ill and developmentally disabled residents were confined in chronically overcrowded, understaffed facilities  that often looked more like prisons than hospitals, where powerful antipsychotics were routinely dispensed, to “keep them quiet.” Residents – “inmates” was a more apt term – shuffled around in grimy “day rooms,” watched TV, or were confined to bleak dorms with few programs, little therapy, poor supervision, and hardly any future.

They were frequently confined against their will. The hospitals could be dangerous places, where hundreds of people, including mentally ill and developmentally disabled children and teens (the accepted term then was “mentally retarded”), were injured or died under questionable circumstances, prompting highly critical media coverage. Finally, sweeping state investigations were launched in the late 1970s into dozens of “suspicious deaths” in state hospitals going back years.

Some major staffing changes were made, but few, if any, criminal charges were filed.

“The state hospitals went from 35,000 to 5,000, and the community was expected to deal with it, without the expertise or the resources.” — Dr. Stephen Mayberg

As the hospitals closed during the Reagan administration, and into the first Jerry Brown term, only a few remained, primarily to house those deemed criminally insane by the courts.

For the legions of discharged residents without families willing or able to help or house them, the streets – and jails and prisons – of California cities ultimately became the default “homes” for thousands of mentally ill Californians.

The “community care” touted by the Lanterman reforms was largely nonexistent, and new laws limited institutionalizing or forcing people into treatment against their will. 

“The state hospitals went from 35,000 to 5,000, and the community was expected to deal with it, without the expertise or the resources,” Dr. Stephen Mayberg, who then headed the state Department of Mental Health, told a California Journal reporter in 1997.  “It was a recipe for problems, and we’ve spent a long time trying to dig ourselves out of that hole.”

Yet that “hole” Mayberg described in 1997 only seems to get deeper, despite multi-billion-dollar infusions of taxpayer funds, myriad executive and legislative fixes, critical state audits and frequent reorganizations — including the breakup of the massive state Health Department in the 1970s and, decades later, eliminating the state Mental Health Department in 2011.  As oversight responsibilities were spread among several state agencies, the “problem” has worsened exponentially, complicated by the lack of affordable housing and the Byzantine bureaucracy of “community care.”

More than 150,000 Californians are homeless (many of them mentally ill), according to recent federal estimates. Homeless “counts” are constantly changing, notoriously unreliable, and the numbers likely are much higher. In Los Angeles County alone, recent estimates place the number of homeless people at 60,000. A recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California ranked homelessness as the No. 1 priority for immediate state action.

Under tremendous pressure to take sweeping action, Newsom earlier this month unveiled one of the most ambitious state reorganizations yet, committing more than $1 billion in state funding and prioritizing homelessness and mental health in his 2020-21 state budget proposal, which includes a $750,000 fund “to get individuals off the streets and into supportive services quickly.”

“Californians are demanding that all levels of government. . .do more to get people off the streets and into services, whether that’s housing, mental health services, substance abuse treatment or all of the above.” — Gavin Newsom

Released Jan. 10 in an unprecedented three-hour briefing that featured the governor alone, Newsom cited reams of statistics and budget figures, displaying a rare command of the mind-numbing details typical of a new state budget, as reporters’ eyes glazed and policy-makers watched, astonished.

“In more than 20 years of working in and around state government, we’ve never had a governor who was such a champion of mental health issues, and as knowledgeable about even the minutiae of mental health policy,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, a veteran champion of mental-health reforms. Steinberg, the former leader of the state Senate, authored major legislation, including the 2004 Mental Health Services Act.

Passed by voters as Proposition 63, which boosted taxes on those with $1 million or more in taxable income, the so-called “millionaire’s tax” has raised billions for mental health programs, while at the same time homelessness has become the scourge – and the shame – of California. The state has more homeless people roaming its streets, living in cars, languishing in jails and prisons than any other state, at tremendous public cost and personal pain.

“Californians are demanding that all levels of government. . .do more to get people off the streets and into services, whether that’s housing, mental health services, substance abuse treatment or all of the above,” Newsom said in his Jan. 8 budget preview. “That’s why we’re using every tool in the toolbox – from proposing a massive new infusion of state dollars in the budget that goes directly to homeless individuals’ emergency housing and treatment programs, to building short-term emergency housing on vacant state-owned land.”

The budget proposal must now wend its way through the Legislature, emerging in the spring and with final approval in June. “It’s heartening,” Steinberg said of Newsom’s proposals to radically restructure – and prioritize – California’s historically fraught, extremely complex system of mental-health care, “and will surely help our state improve the lives of people suffering from mental illness.”

Steinberg co-chairs, with Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, the governor’s Council on Regional Homeless Advisors, which on Jan. 13 issued an “interim report” generally praising the governor’s proposals, while also urging more focus on the prevention of homelessness.

“Prevention should focus particularly on the growing number of Californians becoming homeless due to economic displacement,” the council recommended, “as well as those discharging from our institutional settings into homelessness.”

“We were disappointed that the governor did not include a proposal to create a certification program for Peer Support Specialists in the budget proposal.” — Steinberg Institute

The advisory council, which includes local and state officials and advocates, urged the governor to “create a single point of authority for homelessness in California” – a “high-level” official and team “to coordinate housing, health and human services and other state responsibilities relating to homelessness,” answering directly to the governor.

Despite campaign  promises that he would appoint a “homelessness czar,” no such appointment has yet been made. When reporters again raised questions about the position during the budget briefing, Newsom rather testily responded that he is the homelessness czar.

In a separate statement issued shortly after the governor’s Jan. 10 budget briefing by the Steinberg Institute on mental health policy, the former Senate leader generally praised Newsom’s proposals.

But Steinberg, who founded the institute, also criticized the governor’s veto last year of a bill widely supported by mental-health advocacy groups to fund a  program of “Peer Support Specialists” – people with personal and family experience in mental health issues – to help the mentally ill get access to critical services.

The measure has passed the state Legislature unanimously three times, and last year Newsom told advocates that “he wanted the process to be handled through the 2020 budget.”

Thus far, that hasn’t happened.

“We were disappointed that the governor did not include a proposal to create a certification program for Peer Support Specialists in the budget proposal,” the institute said, adding that, “We will take him up on his offer to work with us on this important issue and are determined to add this program to the budget.”

The ‘invisible’ families bearing the brunt of care
Limited peer-support programs have long been used successfully in local programs. They can cost far less than other staffing and support services for mentally ill individuals and their families, who bear the brunt of care for mentally ill relatives with little government support or even consultation.

“We knew the conversations were happening, and we tried to get involved.” — Jessica Cruz

Failure to include peer-support funding in the budget (a cost which the Steinberg Institute says is “modest”) highlights a historic policy misstep in efforts to restructure and improve the state’s convoluted and poorly monitored mental-health bureaucracy – failing to include the mentally ill and their families in policy discussions.

Families and many clinicians, social workers and administrators who work in well-regarded local programs, have long said that ignoring, or giving short shrift to, families in policy and budget discussions often torpedoes effective restructuring of the fractured system, with its long history of massive reorganizations, huge infusions of taxpayer funds – and limited accountability.

“We are going to advocate very heavily for family and consumer representatives” to be included in the budget discussions, said Jessica Cruz, California CEO of the influential National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), which provides advocacy and support for families of people living with mental illness, who say they were not actively consulted in the run-up to the budget proposal.

“We knew the conversations were happening, and we tried to get involved,” Cruz said, attending several informational and “stakeholder” meetings and hearings. At one legislative hearing, she said dozens of mental-health advocates, including family members, were present, saying, “Hey, slow down, let us be part of the conversation.”

The governor’s veto of the peer-support legislation – and his failure to include it in the budget proposal – especially troubles family members.

She said families are often “the hidden, invisible population,” providing the bulk of housing and care for their mentally ill family members, with little support – or even acknowledgement — from public agencies. “When we don’t provide treatment for loved ones, everybody suffers. God forbid something happens to their family.”

She said that concern is particularly acute for aging family members caring for mentally ill relatives, often their adult children. “Many of our members are this invisible population that nobody sees or talks about,” Cruz added. “The family voice is so important, as 99 percent of the time we’re the caretakers, the ones providing housing, treatment, transportation.”

The governor’s veto of the peer-support legislation – and his failure to include it in the budget proposal – especially troubles family members.

“Peer support is huge for families,” Cruz said.  Individuals with “lived experience” as someone living with mental illness or as a family member “can help families navigate through difficult times. We are not trained professionals – we are experts in our own experience. We have to be taken seriously, thoughtfully and strategically as a part of these conversations.”

Kaino Hopper is an artist and former college art teacher – and a longtime Sacramento NAMI volunteer who leads family support groups. Her severely mentally ill adult daughter lives at home with her parents, who are in their 60s, when she is not hospitalized or temporarily institutionalized (there are few long-term, or even adequate short-term, facilities for the mentally ill). “We work 24/7 with no breaks,” Hopper said.

Under current law – which many experts say is an over-reaction to past, forced institutionalization — mentally ill people in crisis can only be detained on a 72-hour “5150” hold.

After horrific media accounts of mentally ill patients being discharged to the street, often with disastrous consequences, recent legislation now prohibits health-care facilities from discharging mentally ill patients without housing, which usually comes down to “a bed” that is often hard to find. Addressing the closure of many so-called “board and care” homes for the mentally ill in California cities because the state reimbursement rates are too low – particularly in urban areas where housing costs have skyrocketed — is part of the governor’s budget proposal, but with few details.

“When the person is released from a hospital, we [family members] become ‘the bed’,” Hopper said. “We need help at that point. . .There are ‘stepdown services’ (post-discharge services) after acute care, but they’re few and far between. It’s hard to get on the list.”

Under current law – which many experts say is an over-reaction to past, forced institutionalization — mentally ill people in crisis can only be detained on a 72-hour “5150” hold, a reference to a provision in state law affecting individuals deemed a threat to themselves or others.

Too often, that has meant languishing on a gurney in an overcrowded hospital emergency room. 

Exhausted family members often step in, with devastating results. When they try to get help, restrictive confidentiality laws routinely prevent consultation with families of adult relatives.

“It’s an impossible situation for families,” Hopper said. “The way the system is set up right now, our family members will receive more services” if they refuse to “house” their mentally ill relatives. “It’s emotional blackmail, and families find ourselves in the crosshairs.  We want to be part of the recovery process, but we are not allowed to be part of that process, although we are pressured to provide housing, with no support. Our homes become burnout zones.” Many parents work, many others are single parents, and there are frequently other children in the home. “Families could do more if we had a way to call for help in the home,” says Hopper.   

An explosive state audit in 2017 found that California counties were often “hoarding” millions in MHSA funds ($126 million in Sacramento County alone).

Cruz praised the governor for “prioritizing mental health and homelessness,” but cautioned against “lumping all people with mental illness together as homeless,” although mental health and substance abuse “are a big piece” of the puzzle.

Cruz and other mental-health advocates are also concerned about tapping into funds raised by the landmark 2004 Mental Health Services Act, from which money already has been diverted by California’s Proposition 2, a legislative measure passed by voters in 2018 to use MHSA funds for housing.  “We have to be extremely careful how we use MHSA funds,” Cruz said.

While vague on the details, Newsom’s budget recommended revisions to both Lanterman-Petris-Short and the MHSA, which the Steinberg Institute supported in concept, saying the MHSA funding should focus more on “the soaring number of people with serious mental illness who are also grappling with homelessness or have been involved in the criminal justice system, as well as the rising number of at-risk children and youth who are coping with mental illness.”

And there is widespread agreement that more accountability and state oversight are essential to tracking both funding and progress.

An explosive state audit in 2017 found that California counties were often “hoarding” millions in MHSA funds ($126 million in Sacramento County alone), and the flow of funding has subsequently, though inconsistently, increased from the counties to expand local programs.

Newsom’s budget urges better accountability. His advisory council recommends legal remedies, including sanctioning local governments that fail to move quickly to meet state benchmarks. Many critics and advocates blame the lack of oversight on the 2011 elimination of the state Mental Health Department, during the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown – a reorganization which dispersed the responsibility for monitoring mental health programs and spending among multiple state agencies, making accountability difficult

“We really need to synchronize mental-health services with housing and shelter services.” —  Steve Watters

The governor’s advisory council is adamant that a cabinet-level appointee – a “single point of authority” (e.g., a “homeless czar”) — be named by and report directly to the governor.

‘Shelter’ vs. ‘Housing’
Advocates also emphasize the distinction between “shelter” and “housing,” and Newsom attempts to address both in his budget proposal.

Short-term shelter – like the 100 travel trailers from the “state fleet” and an unspecified number of “complementary modular tent structures” that Newsom proposes be deployed throughout the state – are by definition not permanent housing, which takes much longer to realize and is much more expensive.

Many local agencies and nonprofits around the state work to provide permanent housing, and many others are focused on temporary shelter. Both, however, emphasize the importance of “wraparound services” for residents facing myriad physical, mental-health, social-services and substance-abuse issues.

“We really need to synchronize mental-health services with housing and shelter services,” says Steve Watters, a longtime CEO of Sacramento-area nonprofits (Safeground Sacramento and, more recently, First Step) that provide shelter, housing and other services for the homeless, many of whom are mentally ill.

“It should be easy, but it isn’t. . .Affordable, permanent housing takes a long time to develop. We’re trying to develop interim housing, a form of shelter, and wraparound services. We can’t wait for affordable housing. Our clients can’t wait,” he said.

The specter of epic tensions between the Newsom and Trump administrations also haunts the governor’s ambitious plans to tackle homelessness and mental illness in California.

On Jan. 1, First Step opened an 80-bed shelter on North A Street in Sacramento, funded through the county, and is working with the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency and the Sacramento City Council to establish “villages” of tiny homes, sleeping cabins — collaborating with other organizations to provide medical and other services.

“It’s much easier to engage clients [in services],” he says, “when you know where they are.”

State and federal funds are often distributed by the cities and counties, and navigating the funding maze can be an exercise in frustration even for the most experienced nonprofit administrators. 

“The city and county have funds coming from the state, with some requirements, and then the city and county decide how to spend the money,” Watters says. “There needs to be more involvement from the service providers [at the local level]. We actively campaign for solutions that involve sheltering and services that can be helpful – intensive case management for each individual, tied in with collaborators on the medical side for mental health counseling and primary care. . .But it’s difficult to navigate the system.”

The specter of epic tensions between the Newsom and Trump administrations also haunts the governor’s ambitious plans to tackle homelessness and mental illness in California, as federal funding is a key element, particularly in Newsom’s lofty plan to “transform Medi-Cal.”

“That three-hour press conference is one-way, directional. The only way you get to a solution is through communication, negotiation.” — Barbara O’Connor

The Los Angeles Times recently revealed that Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has been quietly negotiating with federal officials for funding to address the especially visible and acute homeless crisis in L.A. The efforts initially appeared to be bearing fruit, until the Trump administration placed myriad, but vague, “conditions” on actual funding, which included more involvement by law enforcement and reducing regulations on housing construction. Those conditions appear to have stymied the negotiations.

“But at least they’re communicating,” says Barbara O’Connor, a longtime political adviser and commentator and former communications professor at Sacramento State University.

“These are all great ideas,” O’Connor says of Newsom’s proposals, “but the coordination is lacking, with so much money and nobody to really run it. [Newsom] is not interactive, too much into one-way communication. That three-hour press conference is one-way, directional. The only way you get to a solution is through communication, negotiation. And there must be a project manager, which is true of any project — someone must be fully in charge of it. The homeless problem is not one solution for all. Modesto is not L.A., and the governor hasn’t even talked about federal money. The fact he hates Trump is not an excuse.”

Increasingly criticized for “big ideas,” and few actual accomplishments in his first year in office, the governor’s current proposals have enormous consequences for Newsom’s political future. O’Connor points to recent columns by influential L.A. Times political columnist George Skelton, who has both chastised the governor (for too many big ideas, too few actual accomplishments) and cautioned him (the current budget proposal initially appeared to be more focused on a few key issues, but the three-hour budget “briefing” should have been condensed to 30 minutes max.).

On the day after a preview of the 2020 budget, Skelton quoted two political veterans about prospects for Newsom’s second year:

From Republican political lawyer Steve Merksamer, who was chief of staff to Gov. George Deukmejian: “This governor made more promises than any governor I’ve seen. . .This is not a criticism, but it’s the time to put up or shut up. Taking on issues other people haven’t is fine, but that’s not the question. It’s taking them on and solving them. It’s time to fish or cut bait. It’s the second year.”

From Democratic political consultant Steve Maviglio, who was communications director for Gov. Gray Davis (like Newsom, Davis was a former college baseball player): “When you swing at a lot of pitches, you hit a lot of foul balls. He should focus on hitting a few out of the park.”

Advocates for the homeless mentally ill, meanwhile, always hoping for more state funding, are hesitant to publicly criticize public agencies.

Daniel Zingale, a top political adviser to two previous governors and former senior vice president of the California Endowment, reportedly has worn many hats in the Newsom administration, although his title was director of strategic communication and public engagement. He announced his retirement last week, but said he would stay on through Newsom’s State of the State message next month and may continue in an advisory capacity.

In his previous, equally high-profile jobs, Zingale was accessible, often quoted in news accounts, though less so during the first year of the Newsom administration.

Earlier this month, Zingale spoke to Skelton about the 2020 budget – and, perhaps, attempt some damage control over all of those reports of unfocused governing. He told Skelton that Newsom would be focused this year on three priorities: homelessness, health-care affordability and wildfires.

And then, a day later, Newsom delivered that marathon, one-man, three-hour budget “briefing,” showing a remarkable command of governmental minutiae, going well beyond his three “priorities” into the wonky details of the vast state bureaucracy. Not a good sign for actually accomplishing those priorities.

Advocates for the homeless mentally ill, meanwhile, always hoping for more state funding, are hesitant to publicly criticize public agencies and elected officials who help pay for their programs, although many are distressed by what O’Connor called Newsom’s “one-way communication.”

So they are waiting in the wings, hoping for the best, focused on keeping their clientele off the streets, connected with services.

“If you’re going to navigate the system and put things in place to help people,” says First Step’s Watters, “you can’t stand on the corner all the time with a bullhorn.”

Ed’s Note: 
Sigrid Bathen is a Sacramento journalist who teaches at California State University, Sacramento. She has written about mental-health issues for more than 40 years. Her investigative reporting has appeared in many publications, including the Sacramento Bee and the California Journal.  She has received several major awards, including a Pulitzer Prize nomination and recognition from the state and national mental health associations. Bathen has written about mental health, education, health care and state government for Capitol Weekly since 2005.


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