Protesters sleep on sidewalk, demand mental health care
Lawrence Abbott’s little brother, Theodore, should still be alive today. Instead, he died of a treatable illness at age 57 after a long struggle with homelessness because Alameda County’s beleaguered mental health system failed him, Abbott says.
Now, Abbott and other activists are sleeping outside the Board of Supervisors’ offices in downtown Oakland to draw attention to the plight of people like Theodore. They’re calling for more resources, especially conservatorships, in-patient facilities and other options, for people who are too sick to know they need treatment.
And they’re decrying the use of Santa Rita Jail as a default treatment center, urging county officials to invest in hospitals instead of incarcerating people with untreated mental illness.
“My heart is broken,” Abbott told the group of protesters Monday as he recounted his brother’s death. “He could have outlived me and he should have outlived me. He was my baby brother. ”
Following a protest that pulled in about 100 people Sunday, Abbott and four other activists pitched tents in front of the county administration building, while two others slept nearby in their cars. They plan to stay there until at least Tuesday, when they will dial into the Board of Supervisors’ meeting to speak about the issue.
The event was organized by Families Advocating for the Seriously Mentally Ill (FASMI), an activist group made up of people who are struggling or have struggled to get adequate care for their mentally ill loved ones.
Keith Carson, president of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, agrees with FASMI that more investment in community-based programs is needed, said Melissa Male, a spokeswoman for his office.
“More than ever before, the county is being very aggressive in integrating mental health into everything we do to make sure folks don’t wind up in our jails to begin with, and get services at the earliest point,” she said.
Abbott said his family tried for years to help his brother, who had schizophrenia. Theodore suffered bouts of paranoia and refused treatment, Abbott said. The family frequently pleaded with police to place him on an involuntary psychiatric hold, but officers regularly declined, claiming Theodore was not an immediate threat to himself. When the officers did acquiesce, sometimes there was no room for him at the hospital, Abbott said. And if Theodore did make it to a hospital for treatment, he’d soon be released back to the streets.
The court finally appointed a conservator to oversee Theodore’s care and force him into treatment – and he improved dramatically, Abbott said. But the conservatorship expired after one year, and the court would not renew it, Abbott said.
Theodore’s mental health declined, and he ultimately died of a treatable form of leukemia because he would not show up to his doctor’s appointments, Abbott said – a tragedy that could have been prevented.
By sleeping outside the county building, Abbott feels like he’s getting a taste of what his brother went through being homeless off and on for years.
“It’s pretty rough,” he said. “It got a little cold last night, and there’s a lot of noise all night long.”
Now is the time to call attention to the broken system, said Jennifer Esteen, a psychiatric nurse running for Assembly District 20. Gov. Gavin Newsom last year set aside $ 3 billion to house people struggling with mental illness, and he wants to spend an additional $ 1.5 billion over the next two years.
“It has to be different,” Esteen said, “and it has to be different now, while they’re deciding how resources will be invested.”
FASMI member Patricia Fontana worries Alameda County is not taking advantage of the funding opportunities.
The county received state funding last year for a mobile crisis unit, according to Janice Adam, spokeswoman for Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services. But county officials did not apply for an available second round of funding that year, as it “did not meet the needs of our behavioral health department at that time,” Adam wrote in an email.
However, the county intends to apply for another grant this year – the state recently made $ 518.5 million available to build and expand behavioral health treatment facilities. The state is offering another $ 570 million to build and expand care facilities for low-income and homeless patients – which Alameda County officials are considering applying for as well.
“We are closely following the availability of various funding streams and looking for opportunities to enhance our systems of care,” Adam wrote in an emailed statement. “We’re weighing each opportunity alongside long-term program need, planned service expansions, and network capacity to better serve our community.”
On Monday, Fontana urged the county to invest in hospitals instead of Santa Rita Jail. The county in 2020 approved more than $ 300 million to boost the jail’s behavioral health services, which have been under fire for several years. A recent settlement – following a lawsuit over alleged poor conditions at the jail – requires the jail to create a new unit for people with mental illness, among other changes. A report by the federal Department of Justice last year found the county for years has failed to adequately treat people with mental illness.
“What we have now, it’s cruel. And it’s not working, ”Fontana said. “It’s failing.”