What Happened to Norman Needn’t Be Normal: Part Two

by Ken Katz

While writing last month’s article about Norman Allen and the other mentally ill homeless individuals who continue to frequent the Grand Lake neighborhood, I couldn’t help but think back to 1968 when I moved to Oakland to work as the Resident Counselor in Oakland’s first psychiatric halfway house. It was opened as an alternative to forced hospitalization and was part of a nationwide, deinstitutionalization process launched by JFK shortly before his assassination. In addition, community-based group housing had become more of a necessity due to the 1967 passage of the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act that, among other measures, made involuntary commitment of mentally disordered persons illegal–except under specific circumstances. Although these decisions were well intentioned and good in theory, things didn’t always turn out well in practice due to inadequate state and/or federal funding. That and lax management is what caused my employer at the time to lose his sponsorship by the Alameda County Mental Health Association and that, in turn, led to the home’s closure a year later.

A full half-century later, the East Bay does have a handful of group homes providing supportive housing for the mentally ill–but there aren’t nearly enough beds. Just as importantly, California’s mental health care system appears to still be plagued by a lack of adequate funding and resources. In addition, what’s happening here in our own backyard raises major questions as to how the state regulations regarding involuntary incarceration and conservatorship are being interpreted and enforced.

The campaign to get the Alameda County Health Department more actively involved in resolving the problems the Grand Lake District is experiencing with those individuals who are disruptive resulted in a Zoom meeting this past week. Half a dozen key ACHD staff members and department heads made presentations, as did the Program Manager for Bay Area Community Services. In addition, County Supervisor Wilma Chan and City Council President Nikki Bas Fortunato contributed to the conversation. The presentations included general information about the county’s homeless population, which as of 2019 was just over 8,000–of which approximately 40% are in Oakland. Roughly two-thirds of those surveyed had been homeless for at least a full year. The presentations also included information about Crisis Management Teams and health care services including COVID abatement efforts. The most welcome information concerned the county’s efforts to increase the availability of housing for those living on the streets. As part of their response to the pandemic, Project Roomkey leased hotel rooms serving 2,160 clients. Two-thirds of those who exited did so to another more permanent housing location. In addition, the county purchased a Comfort Inn and a Days Hotel, which are now providing 244 units for short-term emergency housing. More good news came from Council President Bas who noted that, thanks to her office’s efforts, residents of the encampment on the tennis courts at Athol Plaza Park had been relocated. Also, Lakeview Village in the vacant lot adjacent to the corner of 1st Avenue and East 12th had an Open House this morning. It’s a tiny home community of PalletShelters serving up to 55 residents transitioning out of homelessness, with a holistic and trauma-informed service model.

All the above presentations were very well received, but, as a whole, the community stakeholders were disappointed that what they were describing as a crisis situation was barely addressed and what little was said in response appears to have been inaccurate or ineffective. A case in point: they were told that individuals who posed major problems could be served with stay-away orders. Unfortunately, getting such an order is a time-consuming process, is typically is limited to a very small geographic radius, and, as BID Co-Director Kira Pascoe pointed out, is difficult to enforce since it often takes OPD hours to respond to a violation. We would also add that it doesn’t solve the problem. It merely moves it to another neighborhood.

Stakeholders were also advised that no one could be hospitalized or medicated against their will. To be absolutely clear, no one is about to advocate taking such measures lightly, but the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act and subsequent court rulings provide for just such measures when an individual is determined to be gravely disabled or a threat to himself or others. By the way, one seldom mentioned goal of that act is also to guarantee and protect public safety, which is becoming increasingly problematic.  Past neighborhood efforts to have the county invoke the “5150” process in order to get help for Norman Allen were in vain. Current efforts to obtain a conservatorship for a neighborhood resident who isn’t homeless but is seriously mentally ill and increasingly aggressive have also thus far been unproductive.

Contrary to our own limited experiences, it turns out that Alameda County actually has one of the highest statewide rates of involuntary hospitalization in all categories as documented in this 2019/2020 online report. Accordingly, it’s hard to understand why the individual who (as we reported last month) forced the closure of a locally owned business by prancing around the premises (while naked and repeatedly shouting “c_t”) hasn’t been arrested or taken to John George for assessment. He remains untreated, still out on the streets and not in supportive housing. We should add that we’ve since learned that what is likely the same individual did much the same thing in another nearby business, forcing an employee to lock the door and turn her back while he stretched out naked on the sidewalk in broad daylight.

If that’s not bad enough, this past week, a new arrival set up a tent alongside the entrance to the Walker Avenue parking lot. If you’re following the neighborhood NextDoor newsfeed, you’re partially aware of what he’s capable of. Here’s the initial complaint:

Threatening tented homeless person at Grand Ave parking lot.

My husband and I just had a lovely, delicious dinner at Almond & Oak. After dinner, as we were walking back with our dog to our parked car in the Grand Avenue parking lot next to the dumpling lounge, there was a very aggressive man that emerged from a tent. The tent was at the entrance of the parking lot and there was a pile of garbage at the curb. He was extremely aggressive to us and walked with us to our car. After we got in our car, he started to bang on our car and was yelling at us. It was extremely uncomfortable and threatening. We called the police and reported the incident. We requested that they confront him. Wanted to post as a caution to anyone in the area. Hopefully the police will rectify the situation and relocate him.

The unfortunate reality is that this is the same guy who has been stealing take-out orders from a neighborhood restaurant and, when confronted, struck the owner. The other reality is in the form of dozens of comments registered in response to the NextDoor post. The majority of the responses talk about moving elsewhere and/or being fearful to the extent that they are reluctant to patronize locally-owned independent businesses that have not fully recovered from the effects of the COVID pandemic and maybe, never will.

One way or the other, all the stakeholders–the City of Oakland, Alameda County, OPD, business owners, property owners, neighborhood residents and social service agencies–must come up with an action plan that focuses on solutions for homelessness in general and for those who are mentally ill and disruptive, in particular. As winter is approaching, we can’t let another “Norman” die outside unsheltered. A major priority should be to find housing for those who are especially vulnerable due to their age and/or medical conditions. As for those few individuals who are creating havoc, the current situation is untenable. If the inability to get them treated is due to Alameda County’s loose interpretation of the relevant statutes, they’ll need to be pressured to be more proactive. If the existing statutes need to be revised, our state legislators need to start talking about amendments or start from scratch. And since the entire system appears to be lacking in beds, treatment, staffing and housing, additional funding sources need to be resourced.

One final note: If you share our concerns, you can help by calling 311 to report trash and other issues related to homelessness and also tell the Chiefs of Staffs for County Districts 5 and 3 that something needs to be done now–not later.

District 5:
Amy Shrago, Chief of Staff: 510-272-6685
Email: District5@acgov.org, amy.shrago@acgov.org

District 3:
Dave Brown, Chief of Staff: 510-272-6693
Email: District3@acgov.org, dave.brown@acgov.org

Recommended reading and/or listening: 

  • A 2016 KQED radio broadcast that provides a chronological account of how what were originally described as “insane asylums” came to be emptied and how that contributed to a larger homeless population
  • A Wikipedia article about the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act and subsequent judicial interpretations

Joanne Devereaux Photo

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.


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3 responses to “What Happened to Norman Needn’t Be Normal: Part Two”

  1. That IS GOOD news.

    Thanks Ken.

    Janis Clark

  2. Ken Katz Avatar

    Janis Clark. You’re not going to be slammed at all. To the contrary, your complaints are exactly why community stakeholders have felt obligated to bring about major changes while respecting those who may be homeless, but basically good citizens–not causing problems. We’re also happy to share some good news. We just learned that OPD has arrested the guy at the parking lot entrance and they will be seeking a stay-away order.

  3. With concern of being slammed by the community, it seems as though the Act that was passed in 1967 gives people, like the guy who lives under the freeway on Grand and dumps his trash in front of his tent, and the guy stealing food and harassing patrons at the entrance of the parking lot of Grand, the OK to continue. It’s unlikely those who drafted the Act anticipated the current situation.

    I don’t know about a man, but as a woman, it is frightening to walk by these people despite giving them the benefit of the doubt that they are harmless. In addition, it is embarrassing walking down these streets with guests. The resulting filth is a health hazard and leaves concerned citizens or the city to clean up after them.

    Yes, I’ve contacted the City. The response is there is no legal way to get them to alternatives.