My trip to Skid Row

I toured Skid Row in Los Angeles last week and visited an innovative medical clinic that serves the homelessness population there. I also saw a newly built housing project for chronically homeless persons with mental illnesses, and then I ended the day at the Twin Towers – Los Angeles County’s main jail. Many of you know the jail is the largest public mental health facility in our country.

Six years ago, I spent two days on the jail’s seventh floor where the most psychotic prisoners are kept. It is where I planned to do research for my book, CRAZY. But lawyers in the sheriff’s office pulled my invitation citing privacy laws. I tried Cook County in Chicago next, then Rikers Island in New York City, then Baltimore and finally Washington D.C. but none of those facilities would let me in. Finally, my friend, Judge Steven Leifman, got me into the Miami Dade County Jail.

I wondered while I was touring the jail how my book might have been different if I had gotten to do my research there.

I was in Los Angeles for a board meeting of the Corporation for Supportive Housing. It’s executive director, Deb De Santis, invited me to join the board after my book was published and it has been a fabulous experience.

CSH works behind-the-scenes to create housing for homeless persons. Founded in 1991, its staff teaches community leaders how to build successful housing projects that not only help persons move off the street but eventually save communities tax dollars. CSH also gives out loans and helps arrange financing. Not only has CSH helped construct nearly 74,000 new housing units for homeless persons, it has been active in developing re-entry programs for persons in jail who are being released.

At the Twin Towers, CSH helped sheriff’s deputies create a program that links homeless persons with community services before they are freed from jail. This is extremely important because turning a psychotic, homeless person free from jail without medication, money, food, or housing guarantees failure.

The CSH program at the L.A. jail has reduced recidivism from 70 percent to 35 percent – among the homeless. That is an incredible drop given that these inmates include persons who have been homeless for years. Most of them have a mental illness and a drug or alcohol problem.

In addition to linking law enforcement with community social service providers, CSH pushes for quality supportive housing –which I strongly advocate. When you go through Skid Row in Los Angeles, you will see several “missions.” They are based on an old model that was developed by religious groups. In return for listening to a sermon, a homeless person gets a hot meal and bed for the night.

It’s nice that these missions keep some people from sleeping on the street, at least for the 23-day limit that most impose. But missions rarely help people get into permanent housing. Their goal is saving lives, not ending homelessness.

Supportive housing focuses on getting people into their own apartments. In return for one-third of a person’s income (if that is zero, they pay zero) a homeless person is provided with his/her own room. Other supportive services, such medical care, vocational counseling, peer support, and help from a social worker, are provided in the best of these supportive housing projects. In addition to supportive housing, The Lamp, on Skid Row offers what is called Housing First. This means that a homeless person is given an apartment even if they have an alcohol or drug abuse problem. The concept is simple: a person with a mental illness or someone who is homeless can’t really focus on their problems if they are sleeping on the sidewalk at night. The Lamp claims an 85% success rate.

You should visit the CSH website here. CSH is one reason why when I give speeches, I can say with confidence that we know how to help most people who are homeless and have mental illnesses. CSH is proving that!

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.

  • jmc15

    I often wonder at what point in their life a person with a mental illness becomes homeless and if there was a way to prevent that from happening in the first place. Obviously, homeless people were once a member of a family, living with their parents and maybe some siblings and attending family celebrations with other relatives throughout the year. Providing housing to a homeless person is suggested as the way of helping someone once their lives have been devastated to the point that they are now living on the street. Of course, providing shelter is the right thing to do once a person lacks shelter and may possibly be being victimized by their exposure to the elements or to predators. However, providing just six months to one year of court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) in the community has been shown to reduce homelessness, incarceration, and victimization. The feared negative consequences of involuntary treatment were not shown in the recent, highly respected report on the most studied AOT law, Kendra's Law. Most people receiving AOT stated that it wasn't whether or not the treatment that they received was voluntary or involuntary but how the services were provided. Timely, effective AOT laws help people avoid hospitalizations, homelessness, incarceration, and victimization. It seems to me that treatment should be the first step that might lead to the person being well enough to seek out housing on their own and maybe then to requesting help with finding a job. Providing treatment through AOT should be seen as a positive contribution toward helping someone with a severe mental illness and lack of insight to reach out for treatment on their own to be able to regain their lives. Shouldn't we want to see everyone with a severe mental illness receiving the most effective treatments available instead of waiting for their lives to deteriorate to the level of homelessness and then finally say, “now that lack of treatment for your illness has caused you to become homeless, we'll finally do something and provide some shelter for you.” Although the intention is kind and caring, it is too little, much too late.

  • jmc15

    I often wonder at what point in their life a person with a mental illness becomes homeless and if there was a way to prevent that from happening in the first place. Obviously, homeless people were once a member of a family, living with their parents and maybe some siblings and attending family celebrations with other relatives throughout the year. Providing housing to a homeless person is suggested as the way of helping someone once their lives have been devastated to the point that they are now living on the street. Of course, providing shelter is the right thing to do once a person lacks shelter and may possibly be being victimized by their exposure to the elements or to predators. However, providing just six months to one year of court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) in the community has been shown to reduce homelessness, incarceration, and victimization. The feared negative consequences of involuntary treatment were not shown in the recent, highly respected report on the most studied AOT law, Kendra's Law. Most people receiving AOT stated that it wasn't whether or not the treatment that they received was voluntary or involuntary but how the services were provided. Timely, effective AOT laws help people avoid hospitalizations, homelessness, incarceration, and victimization. It seems to me that treatment should be the first step that might lead to the person being well enough to seek out housing on their own and maybe then to requesting help with finding a job. Providing treatment through AOT should be seen as a positive contribution toward helping someone with a severe mental illness and lack of insight to reach out for treatment on their own to be able to regain their lives. Shouldn't we want to see everyone with a severe mental illness receiving the most effective treatments available instead of waiting for their lives to deteriorate to the level of homelessness and then finally say, “now that lack of treatment for your illness has caused you to become homeless, we'll finally do something and provide some shelter for you.” Although the intention is kind and caring, it is too little, much too late.

  • sad…the mentally challenged people should be treated more humanly….