But mentally disturbed individuals, being confined to a greater proclivity toward chronic homelessness, are a separate problem, addressed most directly by the Center for Mental Health Services, which is a federally chaired organization. The CMHS is a channel through which policy regarding disbursement of social resources is implemented. It garners all of its data from the National Resource Center of Homelessness and Mental Illness, which is the only agency specifically designated toward providing information on this demographic. As a publicly funded group, it is not designated to any political agenda, but it is subject to a wide variant in allocation depending on the policies of the prevailing political party. Both of the former Bush administrations, for example, have delivered annual allocations to the CMHS that were trimmed to about 20% the size of President Clinton's yearly disbursement. The ability of the agency to function at its fullest current potential is always at the mercy of the controlling party's priorities. (CMHS, 11)
This may have a reciprocal relationship with the voting public's desires however. At the inception of popular advocacy for the cause of sheltering the homeless, there was widespread public sympathy and outright indignation. The American public clamored for a merciful solution, asserting that there was some failing in the system of democracy if individuals were able to fall so far through the cracks. This helps to inform the array of options at our disposal in terms of agency refinement.
Among options for dealing with the homeless problem, one that seems to have taken on a greater popularity amongst city administrators is a ratcheting up of police presence and an enforcement of vagrancy and panhandling laws, Unfortunately, the policy of enforcement has become increasingly popular. Twenty-six states have laws or allowances for laws restricting panhandling. And many major metropolitan cities like Washington D.C., Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix have begun engaging in a systematic crackdown on vagrancy. Using law enforcement to curtail the inconveniences caused by homelessness is not a new phenomenon by any means. Certainly there have always been laws on the books restricting an array of begging forms and venues of operation.
However, the recent invigoration of implementation of these laws is illustrative of a broader intent to incarcerate the homeless. Mentally disturbed individuals are targeted with primacy due to their conspicuousness and their greater likelihood to behave in a fashion that is disruptive to passersby. And this motivation is what's at the crux of the policy. Enforcement and arrest are utilized to discourage the homeless presence in heavily traveled and populated areas. By threatening encounters with police officers, municipalities have fundamentally sought to push the homeless problem out of visibility. To that end, it has proven somewhat effective. Many have been inclined to laud Mayor Guliani's groundbreaking policies that 'cleaned up New York.' It is a fact that there has been a significant decline in the occurrence of panhandling.
But this is not necessarily indicative of a decrease in the homeless population. Rather, many have simply been relegated to alleyways and less-frequented locations, thus incapable of generating even the meager sums acquired theretofore by way of begging (O'Hara, 16). Dismissing all ethical and humanitarian considerations as both secondary and far too subjective to weigh with any real validity, there is still a very serious logistical objection to be brandished against this policy. All prior evidence suggests that this type of societal response is one of the greatest factors in inciting sustained homelessness for the mentally disturbed. Conflagration with law enforcement, followed by either time in jail or containment in a state of temporary, mandatory hospitalization has had the tendency of compounding the mental disturbance and worsening the situation of the sufferer. Tactically, this is a policy that opts to address the problem only cosmetically. On a far more applicable level, those who are suffering both from mental illness and homelessness are pushed deeper into a cycle of decline.
The very resources that are employed to enforce anti-panhandling and vagrancy laws could instead be allocated to treatment facilities. Many of the mentally disturbed people living without homes are not beyond help. They have merely been without it. If any state or municipality were to truly combat the homelessness, it would have to take on the responsibility of treating this root cause.
Documented investigation reveals that, if engaged by mental health professionals, most mentally disturbed homeless people will illustrate or communicate a genuine desire to accept assistance. The deprivation of such assistance is an institutional problem that can be redressed. Rather than using police officers as agents of engagement, given their relative lack of training and predisposition toward mental health services, municipalities would be well-served to approach the mentally ill with social workers. Those whose conspicuous maladjustment makes them prime candidates for arrest and disturbance of the peace charges should be offered the opportunity to receive mental health treatment rather than jail.
While many political leaders focus squarely on the instant gratification of removing the homeless problem from a direct line of sight, they could instead offer the more constructive avenue of rehabilitation provision. With treatment, many individuals who are currently in a circumstance of hopeless and irreversible poverty could instead experience viable prospects of functional assisted or group home living (Lezak, 1987, 23). Placed on the proper path of mental treatment, hygiene/health maintenance and service intensive integration, individuals could make a real transition into residential living of some sort.
Burt, M.R., Aron, L.Y., Douglas, T., Valente, J., Lee, E., Iwen, B. (1999). Homelessness: Programs and the People They Serve. Interagency Council on the Homeless. Washington, DC.
Center for Mental Health Services (CMHS). (2000). Process Evaluation of the ACCESS Demonstration Program for Homeless Persons with Serious Mental Illness: Fifth Year Implementation Case Studies. Vols. I & II. Rockville, MD: Center for Mental Health Services.
Lezak, a.D. & Edgar, E. (1992). Federal Task Force on Homelessness and Severe Mental Illness. Outcasts on Main Street. Interagency Council on the Homeless. Washington, DC.
Lezak, a.D. (1987). Synopses of National Institute of Mental Health Community Support Program Service Demonstration Grants for Homeless Mentally Ill Persons. National Institute of Mental Health. Rockville, MD.
O'Hara, a. & Miller, E. (2000). Priced Out in 2000: The Crisis Continues. Technical Assistance Collaborative, Inc. Boston, MA.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). (1999). Press Release: $4.4 Million Awarded for Treatment of Homeless Mothers with Substance Abuse, Mental Health Disorders. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Rockville, MD.