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Kelly Thomas And The Crisis in Mental Health Care For The Homeless

Updated on August 8, 2011

In a recent tragedy in Fullerton, California, Kelly Thomas, a homeless man with Schizophrenia, was killed as cops attempted to subdue and apprehend him. As someone who works with the mentally ill, I am deeply saddened at this senseless loss of life. Mr. Thomas, 37 years old, was injured to the point that he was in critical condition, existing on life support for five days before succumbing to his injuries. He was still a young man, and with the proper treatment, had plenty of good years ahead of him.

Thus far the sentiment seems to be that the police are brutal, senseless killers who beat the man to death in a frenzy of hate and rage. This very well may be the case. As all the facts are not yet in, perhaps we should wait for more information; that being said, I suspect that the cops did not handle the situation appropriately.

Many questions are posed by this incident. Why was a mentally ill man living on the streets? As there is evidence that he has been arrested in the past for assault with a deadly weapon, clearly there is the suggestion that this man posed a threat to himself and others.

Protests have started, and people are expressing anger at the police, infuriated over the police brutality in this case. If the facts weigh out that there was indeed brutality, people should be enraged, but there’s plenty to be angry about regarding this issue, and many things we need to consider.

Mr. Kelly was not an anomaly. From the information I was able to find, sixteen percent of homeless individuals have some form of mental illness. This is a high percentage of people who are struggling to survive, on top of trying to cope with a mental illness. Many of them are in a state of mental confusion; tired, hungry and attempting to deal with cold winters and hot summers. They battle the elements. From what I was able to gather, many do not have access to case service management, housing, and treatment. I would suspect that when they’re in the process of living on the streets, their mental condition further deteriorates, exacerbating their plight. Given the current dismal economic forecast for the United States, I don’t foresee the situation improving.

We don’t think much about these individuals until a crisis occurs; then we feign indignation and make moral statements about those who protect and serve, but where were WE when this man was wandering around the streets homeless and attempting to deal with an untreated mental illness? Did we attempt to help this man or others like him?

I will admit that for the most part, I’m as guilty as the great majority of people who drive by such individuals on our way to work or as we go about our busy days. My husband often gives homeless people the change in his pocket, or buys them a meal, but for the most part, we just drive by, and forget them. In this weak economy, with rising costs of everything, many of us are just trying to tread water. I know I am.

Recently in a forum, I attempted to bring up the issues of this man’s rights. Where do they start and where do they end? Did Mr. Thomas have the right to live on the streets, even to his own detriment, or should someone have stepped in and by some legal measure, taken steps to assure that he was in a facility that provided a safe living environment, food to eat, and supportive staff who encouraged him to comply with medication and treatment?

I realize that this is a slippery slope. As I advocate for the rights of all people to make their own decisions, absent a government agency stepping in and dictating to people how they should live their lives, the last thing I want to see is a bureaucratic monster, growing heads like a giant hydra, committing individuals to life in a mental health facility or group home against their will.

So where do we draw the line? It’s not an easy call, and I admit, I don’t want to make that call. That being said, it’s something that we need to consider. It would seem that thus far, based on the information that we have been provided, the police went way beyond the amount of force necessary to subdue Mr. Thomas. I have seen the pictures of his face, and it’s obvious that he took a severe beating, but the police are not the only ones who failed this man. A broken system failed him long before the police ever laid a hand on him. Schizophrenics usually respond well to the correct medications and treatment. This man fell right through the cracks.

I have empathy for the family of Mr. Thomas. Family members of the mentally ill often try everything to get the individual to comply with meds, before finally giving up in despair. As for family members who have mentally ill or developmentally disabled relatives at home with them, they have my utmost regard and respect. People with developmentally disabilities or mental illness often need constant, one on one, in line of sight supervision. Families who provide care to their family member, on top of meeting the needs of their other children, are true heroes in my book. Perhaps we need to look at increased support for the family members of such individuals. I’m sure it’s not always easy for them.

As far as those in who work in the industry, they are often underpaid. I myself have worked in the industry for the past eight years, and let me tell you, the company I work for doesn’t pay well. By now I am extremely attached to my clients, and love them as my own. That being said, I honestly cannot make it financially on the money I earn. I’m not greedy, but I also have to provide for my family. It’s unfortunate that those of us who provide care for the most vulnerable in society, often don’t receive a living wage. There seems to be a common assumption that those working in the industry have little or no education. Those I have worked with come from an entire cross section of society, ranging from no education to those working on graduate degrees. I started in the industry in spite of my education and a fairly decent resume, on a part-time basis because the job allowed me more time with my child and to care for a mentally ill relative at home. Over the years I have seen many qualified, caring individuals leave because they can't make a decent living. This sort of turnover has an adverse impact on the clients.

Meanwhile, the owner of the company whizzes around town in his new Lexus; hitting the chamber of commerce mixers as though he is a pillar of capitalism. I call him the Blanche Dubois of capitalism because many of his employees are forced to be on means tested programs in order to survive. He is, “depending on the kindness of strangers,” strangers called the taxpayer who subsidize his employees while he lives the high life.

My husband and I make too much in combined income to qualify for such programs, but we struggle. Meanwhile, its people like myself who make the company work by providing loving, competent care for the clients. I will soon be leaving the state for another job. I simply have no other choice. My income is not keeping pace with inflation, and a raise in income is not likely. I worry about what will happen to my clients after I leave. You can’t take care of someone for eight years and not worry. At least I can’t.

There’s plenty we could do to help those who suffer with mental illness, and there is plenty that should be done. The mentally ill don’t belong on the streets. If they are incapable of making sound decisions, do we make the decision for them? I realize that there are no easy answers. We’re in the territory of civil and individual rights. I would submit that given what happened to Mr. Thomas, it’s territory we need to be in. Charles Krauthammer once said of the mentally ill who are living on the streets cold, tired, and hungry, that they are, “Freezing on the streets with their rights on.” I tend to agree with him. Until we address these issues, I would submit that we will hear more horror stories, and people like Mr. Thomas will continue to suffer.


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    • BukowskiBabe profile image

      BukowskiBabe 6 years ago from Somewhere in the middle of it all.

      Nia and Polly,

      Thank you for your thought provoking comments. There's so much we need to do to help those with mental illness and your comments are an indicator of increased awareness.

      Hi Feenix! How've you been? Thank you for commenting. As always, you speak your mind.

    • feenix profile image

      feenix 6 years ago

      Hello, BukowskiBabe,

      Thank you very much for writing and publishing this very important and informative post.

      For about the past 20 years, I have been working as a volunteer in a homeless shelter for men here in NYC where I live.

      One thing I have learned is that many people are not homeless because they cannot find or afford housing. They are homeless because they are "mentally-challenged" people who need special care, and there is hardly any to be given.

      Years ago, a bunch of "geniouses" came up with the idea that institutionalizing such people is a crime or injustice.

    • Pollyannalana profile image

      Pollyannalana 6 years ago from US

      I read years ago there were institutions that just dumped mentally ill on the streets and it could be many institutions are even collecting money for caring for these people when they aren't even there. Nothing surprises me. We in America can feed the world but we have never taken care of our own and now the government wants to dump these homeless in rural areas to get them out of cities to be such an embarrassment. Fires of Hell are heating for people like this.

    • NiaLee profile image

      NiaLee 6 years ago from BIG APPLE


      this is a very sensitive subject, mental health is very disregarded in our society until the drama happens. How many murders, suicide and accidents before the society realizes that a sick mind or clouded one doesn't allow health and peace.

      I have family members who battle mental illness often caused or stimulated by their environment who is complaining about them.

      What to do when a mother don't want to take part in our world because too abused to handle it? Be patient and find professional help, not scream, abuse and complain.

      I have seen a lot of individuals as a professional too who could really be saved or helped by a good therapist and a change of life.

      Let's try our best to take good care of ourselves and help those around, even if it is giving a phone call to the doctor, enrolling them in a program, calling social services... sometimes you will need to follow up very closely to make sure that they receive the appropriate care and not just medication or being put away.

      I have faith in the shift in consciousness due to so many affairs and cases being revealed, I have faith that alot more will do the right thing and make the right choices.

      Thnaks for that great hub that reminds us of paying attention, analyzig properly and doing what we can to help. Love and peace.

    • BukowskiBabe profile image

      BukowskiBabe 6 years ago from Somewhere in the middle of it all.

      Hi Christopher,

      Thank you for your kind comment, and it means a lot to me coming from you. We have the same troubles over here. Our vets often get lost and forgotten after they have served. It's sad. Meanwhile, we keep getting involved with more wars. It never seems to end.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 6 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      One of the worst things about the mentally disturbed homeless in this country, is that a lot of them are ex forces. They dont give them the proper support when they come back from the wars, and they end up ill and on the streets.

      It's wrong.

      Thanks for a very interesting and enlightening article.

    • BukowskiBabe profile image

      BukowskiBabe 6 years ago from Somewhere in the middle of it all.

      Hiya Packster. You're too kind, but I do try to be a decent person. Man, has there ever been a character like Nurse Ratched? The veritable indomitable dowager of the ages. I do agree with you about, "behind the screen." Just imagine the stuff we don't know they pull in politics.

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 6 years ago from North Carolina

      Your a smart and decent lady Skibabe. Predators always go after the innocent and weak first. You wanna know why OFOTCN is one of the best pictures ever. Cause Murphey showed em all they had to do to win was try. Nurse Ratched couldn't have that though could she. Also I've noticed some of your comments and maybe you'll agree with this: While otherwise intelligent people are watching the double feature movie arguing among themselves about the characters and plot-lines, the real show is going on behind the screen.

    • Credence2 profile image

      Credence2 6 years ago from Florida (Space Coast)

      BB in regards to your comment-

      I don't think the entire debt crisis would have happened had Hillary been in office. Of course, I could be wrong.

      But on the other hand, you could very well be right,

    • BukowskiBabe profile image

      BukowskiBabe 6 years ago from Somewhere in the middle of it all.


      Thank you for your kind comment. I agree with you. Should I ever be in the position that I can't make sounds decisons, I would hope someone would step in and advocate on my behalf, and you mentioned the number one thing.

      The thing I neglected to mention; human dignity. It so often gets lost in the shuffle. Thank you, again.

    • profile image

      Justsilvie 6 years ago

      This is a heart wrenching subject and you covered it well, BukowskiBabe

      I think dedicated people like you should not be at the mercy of a profit oriented business. I feel mental health or any health care should not be just profit based, because it leaves us open to substandard care for patients/clients and slave wages for those who work in that field.

      I realize people should be able to decide how they want to live, but when it puts your life jeopardy it is a hard call. I would hope if I was ever in the state were I really was not mentally able to care for myself someone might step in and make sure that my basic human needs, of food, clothing, shelter and dignity, things that every human being deserves, are met.

      I think caring mental health care providers are the first line of support for these people and can make a major difference in what path they follow. Kudos to you!

    • BukowskiBabe profile image

      BukowskiBabe 6 years ago from Somewhere in the middle of it all.

      I'm sorry, cred..I didn't mean to upset you. The two of you do keep things interesting though. I lean right, but I was a Hillary supporter. I voted for her in the primary. Not part of some GOP plot. I really thought that she would be a good president. I never saw President Obama as a leader. I think he's a brilliant man, but not a leader. I don't think the entire debt crisis would have happened had Hillary been in office. Of course, I could be wrong.

    • Credence2 profile image

      Credence2 6 years ago from Florida (Space Coast)

      Hey BB, thanks for the comment. Feenix and I can be somewhat abrasive at times and I do not want to fuel the fire. He is set in his ways and I do not agree with his assessment of things much of the time. Thanks for following along.... Cred2

    • BukowskiBabe profile image

      BukowskiBabe 6 years ago from Somewhere in the middle of it all.


      Thank you for your comment. I usually advocate for private industry, and I am a free market kind of gal, but for this industry, it works best without the presence of greed. I don't know if you can even call this capitalism, Creed. All the monies come from the state or fed gov, as the clients have no income of their own. I don't know what this is. But I hear you. Capitalism needs to have morals, values and ethics. They scream about the unions, but this is why unions exist.

      I miss the interplay between you and keep things interesting. Okay, going to read your hub. Thank you for the link.

    • Credence2 profile image

      Credence2 6 years ago from Florida (Space Coast)

      Interesting account, BB, but you have made it obvious that someone or some entity has to decide whether and to what extent the mentally ill person is a danger to himself and society. We cannot keep him locked up because he is odd, or can we release deranged people into the society at large, who decides?

      I salute you and the other care givers that work in this industry, but you get to see capitalism at work, the person in charge is living large, soaking up donations, while he pays the people that do the work a pittance. This model runs throughout the economy.

      In regards to the shooting of the congresswoman from Arizona earlier this year, I wrote the following:

    • BukowskiBabe profile image

      BukowskiBabe 6 years ago from Somewhere in the middle of it all.

      Hi GrowingDeeper,

      I don't know where we draw that line. I suppose if someone expresses homicidal or suicidal ideation, but you and I both know that with meds, many become rational only to go off meds later and back to square one. I'm all for charities, and God Bless you for you work.

    • GrowingDeeper profile image

      GrowingDeeper 6 years ago

      I don't believe that this liability falls on the government except for veterans primarily. Via families, churches, private sector there are ways to approach the solutions without being funded mostly by the Fed/State. And, I have worked with the homeless for many years, 1) in anecdotal evidence, Id say probably closer to 25-30% have either an acute case of sudden onset of mental health issues or chronic conditions such as schizophrenia. Many self-medicate and this is a significant reason there is such a prevalence of drug and alcohol usage among the homeless. 2) As you well know bukowski, many of these folks will just do as they please especially when not medicated. In my area, services are provided by the MH community in the woods, under bridges, camps, etc. at least trying to make contact and get some sort of rapport established to offer services. But, I believe in autonomy and freedom of choice but again as you stated so well, where do we draw the line?

    • BukowskiBabe profile image

      BukowskiBabe 6 years ago from Somewhere in the middle of it all.


      In the parlance of those better times, "You know what time it is," and "You know which way the wind blows."

    • PETER LUMETTA profile image

      PETER LUMETTA 6 years ago from KENAI, ALAKSA

      Yes I believe you're right, Ronald Reagan was the instigator of the elimination of funding for Mental Health facilities. No money. I've seen what happened to friends who were turned out without supervision or other help they dearly needed. It is criminal and will get worse.


    • BukowskiBabe profile image

      BukowskiBabe 6 years ago from Somewhere in the middle of it all.


      You've got it, it's only going to get worse. A very thought provoking response to my hub. I love One Flew Over the Cuckoo's of my faves. Didn't Reagan start some of this in the 1980's? I seem to recall hearing that Reagan stopped funding for the mental hospitals, but I could be wrong.

      Thank you again Peter,

      Your friend, BB

    • PETER LUMETTA profile image

      PETER LUMETTA 6 years ago from KENAI, ALAKSA

      BB, I remember this debate years ago, the mentally ill were confined to State Hospitals and the costs were ruining the economies of some states. Many people weere confined by court order for superfluous reasons like the family can't cope with them, not really mentally ill. so the system was abused by the courts and attorneys to the point that the civil rights of the patients were called into question. If you've seen the movie or read the book,"One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest" it typified the view of mental hospitals in the country at that time. So everyone was liberated from the mental institutions for two reasons, first and foremost to save money and two to be politically correct and not step on anyones civil rights. Where did they place them? Not their problem, just put them on the street was what it amounted to and they did. No one in government took up the cause because the mentally ill don't vote (but do end up in politics)so they were and have been abandoned with results like you've told us about in your article. With the state of the economy and the survival of the fitest attitude held by most in the Congress today it can only get worse. Social welfare in the U.S.A. is a non-issue. Just like everything else nowadays you only get heard if you have enough money. Very good BB, your friend Peter.

    • funmontrealgirl profile image

      funmontrealgirl 6 years ago from Montreal

      Incredibly sad. Good on you for getting news out about it.

    • BukowskiBabe profile image

      BukowskiBabe 6 years ago from Somewhere in the middle of it all.

      Thank you Bobbi and Gemini.

      I too hope that at some point, we'll get it together and help those not able to make sound decisions on their own behalf.

    • BobbiRant profile image

      BobbiRant 6 years ago from New York

      Here in lies the dilemma of de-institutionalization because Some people, to be safe, Need the safety and help a group home offers. They are not capable of living in the community and cops have not been trained, in all these years,as to how to deal with the mentally ill, who do break the law all the time, yet they don't'knowingly' break laws always. I used to be an outreach mental health professional and this is a good hub. I wish people would 'get it' in our society.

    • DualGemini777 profile image

      DualGemini777 6 years ago from Epictetus' version of Hell (also Heraclitus')

      Very well said Babe. Finally an unbiased & logical discussion on the issue. I feel your pain & emotions with your boss. The company I work for also is not state run and the boss sees the business only via the lenses of profit rather than providings (for both consumers & employees). Anyway, great hub!