How Can This Be Happening In America? Homeless, Psychotic, Addicted and Abandoned.

(Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times)

(12-27-19) More than 44,000 Americans living in Los Angeles will spend tonight sleeping on the streets.

They are homeless.

Twenty-five percentage of them have a serious mental illness. Roughly, 45 percent have a diagnosable mental disorder. Some 38% of homeless people are dependent on alcohol and 26% abused other drugs.

The homeless population in L.A. now is larger than 18,720 American cities, towns and villages. 

That is unacceptable.

Dr. James J. O’Connell, who has spent more than three decades as a street doctor in Boston, recently sent me an email after spending time conducting “street rounds” in L.A. with friends working for the  Los Angeles County and USC School of Medicine.

I quickly learned the task is impossible with the meager resources devoted to this endeavor, but the time I spent with these young physician assistants and their team was as heartwarming as heartbreaking.

Folks with cancer and deep bone infections living under concrete bridges, tents too numerous to count along most of the major roads.  I have been very familiar with Skid Row over the years (and would go there if I were just starting my career now!), but I was not ready to see how the problem has burst past those blocks and now has spread all through LA..

I can’t tell you how many folks we try to care for on the streets who have been discharged from inpatient (short!) psychiatric care because either (1) they are deemed competent to leave and/or (2) there are simply no beds in any facilities that should be caring for them.  

A year ago, I visited L.A.’s skid row with Dr. O’Connell and other Corporation for Supportive Housing board members and was appalled by what I witnessed.

So many tents and makeshift shelters were on the sidewalks that it was nearly impossible to walk down some streets. At night, the sight of persons relieving themselves on sidewalks, mumbling and, in some cases, shouting at unseen tormentors, others stumbling in the darkness intoxicated and high, and many cowering to avoid being beaten and abused, was nauseating. In my book, CRAZY: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, I recount how one young delusional woman was gang rapped twice and beaten three times while homeless in South Beach, Florida.

How could this be happening in America?

While Los Angeles has more homeless than any other American city, it is rare when I visit an urban area that I do not encounter some of the 552,830 Americans who were counted as being homeless in 2018. After my book was published, I spent three months investigating homelessness in Washington D.C. for a possible book. None of the homeless individuals whom I met was choosing to live on the streets.

Each new year, I think about those who have died from exposure.

This is why I am so grateful for doctors and mental health workers who work each day trying to help those who Dr. Howard K. Koh describes as the  “faceless and nameless, lost in plain sight, and forced to live on the fringes of society.”

Dr. O’Connell has written what I consider one of the most revealing books ever penned about the grim reality of homelessness.  Stories From The Shadows: Reflections of a Street Doctor. Reading it, you are reminded that those on the streets are our brothers and sisters, and they deserve better than us simply passing them by with a sigh.

He also taught me an important lesson about persons who are homeless. You can hear it for yourself at minute 3:52 on this video. In this lecture, Dr. O’Connor explains how we can address this national scandal.



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.