What Happened to Norman Needn’t Be Normal

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.


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10 responses to “What Happened to Norman Needn’t Be Normal”

  1. There is a lot of conversation on Next Door today about our neighbor Robert who is not homeless but has considerable mental issues and hangs out on Lakeshore and Grand daily, often being aggressive and scary. He has not caused any physical harm to our knowledge but on his walk from upper Mandana he does throw garbage, tear out plants, point his fingers while making shooting sounds, plus howling, groaning and making weird sounds and more, day and night.

    The neighbors have been taking him food since his father died two years ago. He has been picked up on 5150s on Lakeshore twice and sent to John George, most recently a few weeks ago. The social worker assigned to him tried to have a meeting but he was released first. He does not answer the door and so she has not met him to help assess his needs. She has worked very hard of this case and is not giving up.

    We have been urged to call the police non-emergency number (510) 777-3333 any time there is concern so they can build a record that will help if Adult Protective Services is appropriate for him. And officer told us to file online crime reports to build a track record but that site does not allow such reports if one knows the identity of the person or has evidence of a crime. Makes no sense. I spoke with an administrative office who confirmed what it states on the website. https://www.oaklandca.gov/resources/can-the-crime-be-reported-online

    Ken posted a link to this article on Next Door.
    Heather Knight’s article in the Chronicle might also be helpful. https://www.sfchronicle.com/sf/bayarea/heatherknight/article/S-F-will-soon-have-10-different-teams-to-respond-16503604.php

  2. Gary Meyer Avatar
    Gary Meyer

    Who was the older guy who was always reading at the bus stop on Mandana at Lakeshore. We have not seen in in awhile. Is he the one who passed away?
    A few years ago there were several guys who were in front of Safeway (not selling Street Spirit but just asking for money). I would offer to buy them sandwiches. One day a guy asked for two so his buddy could have one. He was very specific about what kind of sandwiches. I brought them out and he called his fri4nd from the parking lot. They then walked backl to the lot and as I walked to ny car I saw them getting into a new SUV and drive away.

    1. Ken Katz Avatar

      Gary,

      Yes. The guy reading at the bus stop was Norman and thank you very much for the comments above and the link to the Chronicle article.

  3. C.J. Hirschfield Avatar
    C.J. Hirschfield

    Well–and sensitively– done, Ken.

  4. Annette Wood Avatar
    Annette Wood

    Thank you,Ken, for this compassionate piece.

  5. Marc Ramsey Avatar
    Marc Ramsey

    I’ve lived just off of Grand for 25 years. These “mentally ill homeless” are our neighbors, some have been around for over a decade. The guy that was sleeping on the bench that they removed from Safeway? He used to hawk Street Spirit from the entrance to the district parking lot on Grand Ave. during the early days of the Farmer’s market. Back then he was young, enthusiastic, nicely dressed (though likely he was just out of prison), and always had a joke for our daughter when we walked by. The street (and jail) have turned him into a dim shadow of his former self, but he still talks. Or, the big imposing guy that who for years on the stairs above the vet clinic? A truly nice guy to talk to, never asked anyone for anything, discrete as he could be under the circumstances, he survived on the scraps of food we throw in the trash. I suspect he died anonymously a year or so ago. Or, the young big Black guy that used to hang out in front of the Safeway and sleep under the billboard down the street? It turned out he grew up in this neighborhood, and a series of family and personal calamities put him out on the street, so he came back to the one place he had felt happy. He died (from a stroke I believe) in the arms of some of our “homeless” neighbors one night in Astro park. Then there was the frightened young woman who slept beside the theater a few years ago. I want to believe that she disappeared when the city finally found the help she needed. There are the occasional good stories, too, like the guy that used sweep in front of the Safeway and elsewhere. Last I saw him, he had a car, an apartment, a job, and he was happy.

    We can sit and watch as some of our neighbors die in slow motion on the street from mental illness and addiction, or we can find effective solutions. So far, I don’t think we as a society are doing all that well.

    1. Ken Katz Avatar

      Marc,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. For the record, however, Michael Harris (the guy who swept the street on Grand) may or may not have been homeless to our knowledge and some of the other homeless you mentioned may or may not have been mentally ill. Either way, we agree wholeheartedly with your conclusion that more effective solutions are desperately needed.

  6. Wendy Silvani Avatar
    Wendy Silvani

    I wonder if there’s anything we (neighborhood) could do specifically for the 6 people Joan photographed to improve their lives… customized for each as they each have unique needs and responses to aid. It seems like a micro approach might have better results for all concerned rather than waiting for a bigger program… and what is learned could be scaled elsewhere and to others here?

    1. Joanne Devereaux Avatar
      Joanne Devereaux

      Thanks for your idea and suggestion about bringing help to local unhoused individuals. When I began the series of photographs, Facing Homelessness-Oakland (on Facebook) it was long before CoVid. There are a many people like myself and Ken who want to do something. The issues that lead to unhoused humans living on our streets are too complex to write about here. What we do know, is that many people here in the Lakeshore/Grand neighborhood who read the Splash Pad news are greatly disturbed and want to do something beyond bringing a pair of clean socks and bottled water to these folks. We care about our neighborhood and the businesses that we want to frequent. Our city government, every individual from Libby Schaaf to Nikki Fortuna Bas have grossly fallen short of their responsibilities as elected officials in serving the citizens who elected them.

  7. Ken Katz Avatar

    We used the above photo to close last month’s edition of the Grand Avenue Merchant’s update. Just as we were about to delete it from this post, we happened to notice that “Buck”, one of the homeless individuals whom Joanne Devereaux photographed and has written about was at the far right side towing the wagon that contains his worldly belongings. This seems a bit emblematic as to the extent that the homeless are all around us and, at the same time, often overlooked.