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Jean Sweeney Open Space Park Construction Just Moves Homeless Elsewhere

homeless at jean sweeney open space park

New signs have been posted at the perimeter of the Jean Sweeney Open Space Park. (Action Alameda News)

City authorities have cleared the campers from the Jean Sweeney Open Space Park to start construction, but residents are complaining that the homeless haven’t been helped.

One week after the park site was cleared, a resident reported a new encampment along the old railroad bed beside Constitution Way, apparently set up by someone displaced from the nascent park.

On the NextDoor social media forum, a woman complained that those removed from the park site, “have not been taken care of. They have simply been evicted by police with nowhere to go.”

Asked about this, Sarah Henry, public information officer for the City of Alameda, told Action Alameda News, “As you know, last week the Alameda Police Department moved out approximately 15 people from the belt line, which is now an active construction zone. We are aware of six people who are still living on the streets in various locations, and we are actively working to assist them as they are required to move elsewhere. An additional three people are working with Operation Dignity, who is contracted to help secure housing for Alameda’s homeless veterans as well as the broader homeless population, and the rest are either staying with a friend or have moved on to another city. Unlike other cities, we are not experiencing an influx of new homeless individuals from outside of the city, but our homeless population has become more visible.

“Operation Dignity case workers meet with homeless individuals regularly, and have confirmed that these individuals are long-time Alameda residents. Unfortunately, there is an extremely limited number of transitional housing beds region-wide. Midway Shelter is the only shelter here in Alameda and most of their beds are dedicated to women and children who have experienced domestic abuse. There is transitional housing in Oakland, but Alameda residents do not get priority with the high demand of homeless Oakland residents. Operation Dignity is working with Alameda Point Collaborative to get two homeless individuals with a verified disability into available units.

“It is very important that our homeless population get registered and placed on a wait list for housing with the Alameda County system so they are able to access housing when it becomes available. Alameda County recently launched a new scope of services under “EveryOne Home” which created a streamlined, centralized process for connecting homeless individuals to housing, as well as coordinated entry into programs for people who are homeless. Here is a link to that program: http://everyonehome.org/resources/looking-for-housing/.

Housing Not Enough

To the extent that the homeless we are now seeing in Alameda are mentally ill, housing alone is probably not enough.

Randall Hagar, director of government relations for the California Psychiactric Association told Action Alameda News that about half of the people diagnosed with psychotic disorders like schizophrenia volunteer for treatment, but the rest do not, and “don’t think they are ill, and are hard to engage in treatment.”

He said this cohort isn’t going to engage with therapeutic services even with “the fullest funding and fullest of community services.”

“There’s a lot of money wasted on folks who are difficult to engage in treatment – there is better way to engage them and save money,” he said.

Hagar spoke with Action Alameda News as he returned from a visit to the Nevada County Crisis Stabilization Unit at Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital in Grass Valley.

“We simply missed some things about what mental illness is when we drafted laws in the 1960s,” he said, in response to a question about the Lanterman–Petris–Short (LPS) Act, a bi-partisan bill signed by then-California Governor Ronald Reagan.

The broad intent of the bill was to end the indefinite and inappropriate commitment to mental institutions of mentally ill persons.

Hagar continued, “in the early ’70s, we saw more people show up in jails who were mentally ill. We started seeing it in journal articles in 1972, starting with an article on what was happening in the San Mateo jail.”

Nowadays, it’s widely understood that California jails have become the primary treatment and housing facility for the mentally ill.

Reform of the LPS act is a hot button topic. “Some want to make incremental changes, others want to throw it out,” Hagar said. “I have a foot in both camps. It’s hard to restart from scratch based on current knowledge.”

Patients rights groups such as Disability Rights California tend to push back hard on efforts to impose involuntary treatment, such as the implementation of Laura’s Law, which provides for court-ordered out-patient treatment for the mentally ill.

Action Alameda News reached out to Alameda Councilmember Jim Oddie, who is district director for Assembly Member Rob Bonta.

Oddie deflected to Jerome Parra, Bonta’s communications director in Sacramento, who did not respond.

Nibbling at the Edges

Hagar said there has been some, “nibbling around the edges” of the LPS act; he helped draft Laura’s Law.

The key problem is that the base 72-hour “5150” psychiactric hold provided for in the law is not long enough to stabilize a severely mentally ill patient and treat them.

Hagar explained that, “If the average in-patient stay is only 4 days, that’s not enough time for treatment. The facility may do an evaluation, but certainly doesn’t get measurable clinical effects putting them on an antipsychotic which can take weeks to determine side effects and months to see a person stablize. We know that we don’t have the infrastructure for in-patient beds or when people are released from in-patient beds and need a step-down facility that is not as intensive as an acute hospital setting, but could still provide for months of care for the patient to reach a state of stabilization.”

Short in-patient stays is a contributing factor to homelessness – sending people out to the community too soon, Hagar said. “They send them out the door with no idea if they will be stable in the community. A lot of data shows those people will return, getting more in patient days. Getting arrested. Looking for shelters. Being homeless.”

30-day Intensive Treatment

The LPS Act provides for a “5270” 30-day intensive treatment hold, but can only be implemented after authorization by the county board of supervisors, like Laura’s Law.

Data from the California Department of Health Care Services show that for the fiscal year 2014 to 2015, the most recent data available on the department’s website, shows that no 30-day holds were issued in Alameda County. Nor for the year before that, or the year before that or the year before that.

Determining who should be held is complicated by no universal standard of what constitutes “imminent danger” or “gravely disabled,” the language used in the statute.

However, in October of 2015, Governor Brown signed bill AB 1194, which allows evaluators to take into account the historical course of a person’s mental disorder when determining if they are gravely disabled or represent potential harm to themselves and others. The bill went into effect on January 1 last year.

Hagar brought up the 2014 case of Elliot Rodger who killed 6 people and injured 14 others near the University of California, Santa Barbara, campus.

Rodger had been receiving psychiatric treatment and, at the request of his mother, sheriffs deputies visited him at his home about a month before the killings.

Hagar said, “People can hold it together for 10 minutes to talk to a police officer. But when family members provide history, it can be a different picture, and provide cause to detain and treat people.”

Illnesses such as schizophrenia are neuro-development disorders that compound with time that doesn’t include treatment, Hagar explained.

“I think everybody is suffering from an upsurge in people who are living on the streets,” he said. “If you don’t interrupt the course of the illness, for lots of people, they get worse. The population now that is so difficult, behaviors so challenging, it’s because they came from a generation of people with no treatment. Somebody who has been untreated for 10 years, it’s going to take a long time to get them back to base line stability. It all interacts and the end result is not good.”

Community Outreach Services Not Enough

Community outreach services are not enough, Hagar asserted, saying the pendulum is starting to swing back the other way after the shutting down of psychiatric hospital beds which began in the late 1960s.

Without a dataset at his fingertips, Hagar estimated that California has less than half as many beds per 100,000 people as we should have.

“Whatever the precise numbers are, there are standards for this, and we are short of those standards. Standards used nationwide and we are behind the curve,” he said.

There is hope at the federal level he said with recognition across party lines of the need for funding for mental health treatment, particularly in response to the opiod crisis.

In 2016, the U.S. House of Representatives almost unanimously passed the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act which intends to increase the availability of psychiatric hospital beds.

However, the federal Medicaid Institutions for Mental Diseases (IMD) exclusion, present since the introduction of Medicaid in 1965, remains.

The exclusion prohibits the use of Medicaid funding for care to most mental health and substance abuse disorder treatment facilities.

Federal funding mental health in-patient care dried up around the same time as the introduction of the LPS Act. This was a contributing factor to the reduction in the number of state in-patient psychiatric care beds.

Nonetheless, Hagar is optimistic that the 2016 bill represents the turning of a corner. He notes that his association continues to work on the state level, for example, on how to provide treatment for people held in jail between the time of their arrest and the final adjudication of their case.

“There’s a whole host of problems along a continuum, in the community, in jails, and after release,” he said.

3 comments to Jean Sweeney Open Space Park Construction Just Moves Homeless Elsewhere

  • Janet

    I would like to know who wrote this article.

  • Barbara Thomas

    It is a real problem and everyone I ask, has no answers. So now we have the new Just Cause eviction rent control petition being circulated as if that will solve it. Every economist will tell you that rent control is a failed public policy, it does not achieve any of its purported goals and exacerbates the existing housing shortage causing more and more families to move further and further away from their homes, schools and jobs.

    We need to have a many pronged solution to our problems, such as raising the minimum wage in Alameda to $15.00 an hour. How many of our elected politicians will stand up and vote for this? Did you know that Safeway and Lucky’s in Alameda only pay the state minimum wage of $11.00 an hour? Yet through the tunnel and over the bridges, Safeway, Luckys’ and their subsidiaries, Foodmaxx and FoodCo, pay the mandated $15.00 per hour minimum wage in Oakland?

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