by Ken Katz
For more than two decades, when the subject of mental illness and homelessness in our Grand Lake neighborhood came up, the defining image that often came to mind was a guy most simply knew as “Norman.” Occasionally, he’d disappear for a week and upon his return (with a haircut, shave, and clean clothes) he could have passed (all too briefly) for as “normal” as you and me. Soon, though, he was disheveled and relieved himself whenever the need arose and ignored red lights as he crossed the street. While he did his best to avoid all human contact, he did have an account at Wells Fargo and often shopped at Safeway and Walgreen’s–a painful experience for him and an uncomfortable one for staff and fellow shoppers. Miraculously, through cold and rainy days and nights, Norman somehow managed to survive.
As early as 2008, concerned neighbors and business owners were lobbying to get him the assistance he desperately needed. In 2011, a dozen representatives from the community and various agencies met at Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church and agreed that he should be hospitalized, stabilized, and then placed into supportive housing. For whatever reason, that never happened. If you fast forward to earlier this year, you may have seen Norman (now in his mid-seventies and in failing health) still on the streets… until he suddenly disappeared. This Nextdoor thread reveals that his body was later found on April 6th high on the slope above the freeway at the corner of Lake Park and MacArthur, but the accompanying comments also demonstrate the extent to which, over the years, concerned neighbors tried to help, usually in vain. Former Councilmember Pat Kernighan said this:
Now that he is gone, I find it touching that so many people are sharing their memories of him. Yes, he was filthy and stinky, but he was clearly regarded by many as a human being worthy of compassion and care. I am choosing to think of these recollections as a little memorial to his life.
The system’s failure to get Norman off the streets is tragic in itself, but what’s particularly disturbing is that some of the mentally ill homeless who have taken his place are much more problematic. Business owners on Lakeshore and, to a lesser extent, on Grand are now having to clean up feces on a daily basis. One individual is particularly combative, harassing shop owners and regularly ripping out landscaping and turning over planters. The severity of the challenges shop owners and their employees are sometimes facing was spelled out in this graphic email from a business owner who prefers to remain anonymous:
Yes, sadly we closed (hopefully temporarily) because we could not keep our staff safe, and we could not afford to hire a private guard. The extent to which homeless individuals consistently harassed, defecated, screamed, spit, broke glass, and followed the staff, causing them to hide behind a locked door during business hours and fear leaving was too much to risk. One individual was naked and pouring milk all over the shop, while screaming “cunt.” No one should be afraid at work – for any reason. Not worth it.
Theoretically, there are several treatment options that can be pursued, beginning with Article 5150 of the California Welfare and Institution Code, which provides for a 72-hour hold for assessment, crisis intervention, and determination as to whether or not any given individual should be hospitalized involuntarily if they are deemed to be a threat to themselves, or others, or gravely disabled. That turns out to be a very high bar to cross–particularly when it comes to the definition of “gravely disabled.”
More recent options include Laura’s Law, which can mandate Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT). In addition, the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act has provisions that allow judges to authorize conservatorships for severely mentally ill individuals, but that program is very rarely implemented in Alameda County. With these three options, there are never enough beds, and enforcement always seems lacking.
One additional option is in the works. Funding has been allocated for a pilot program in East Oakland called MACRO that Council President Nikki Bas Fortunato described as follows in her March Newsletter:
My legislation would advance the MACRO program immediately by putting the Fire Department in charge of mental health crisis calls. MACRO must be staffed by city workers who have expertise working with communities suffering from mental health, addiction and domestic violence. It must be set up with direction from a community advisory board led by those with experience providing mental health support to survivors of state violence and other impacted communities.
Meanwhile, in response to what’s being viewed as an ongoing crisis, the Lakeshore BID has launched a campaign in conjunction with the Grand Avenue Business Association, Grand Lake Neighbors, Lakeshore Baptist Church, the Splash Pad News and Lakeshore Homes Association to get more support from the City of Oakland and, more importantly, from the Alameda County Health Department, which is largely responsible for mental health services.
The initial salvo was in the form of a letter directed to the two members of the County Board of Supervisors who represent this district: Wilma Chan and Keith Carson. The latter, at the urging of Ms. Bas, has agreed to a Zoom meeting with major stakeholders later this month. You can help by posting comments below and also by contacting the two aforementioned members of the Board of Supervisors using these talking points as a guide.
Editor’s Note: This campaign isn’t punitive and can’t be perceived as such. No one wants offenders arrested. They want these individuals to gain access to help, which may require hospitalization against their will. Please also remember that this campaign’s focus is on a small segment of the homeless population–the majority of whom (including those who are mentally ill) are not combative or otherwise disruptive. They, too, need help but in different forms with less immediacy. These are the folks that Joanne Devereaux photographed and wrote about in this article in the February 2019 Splash Pad News.
Joanne Devereaux Photos
Ken Katz founded the Splash Pad Neighborhood Forum in late 1999 and, in his role as Chair, coordinated the community efforts to lobby for a new park and subsequently served as a liaison to the City of Oakland and to Walter Hood’s office during the planning process. The first Splash Pad Newsletters were emailed beginning circa 2006. Currently, he acts as a contributor to—and publisher of—the monthly Splash Pad News. Keila Diehl proofreads all the copy, filters content as needed, and makes everyone involved look good.