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