Can You Believe Somebody Is Trying to Solve Mentally Ill Homelessness?

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We spoke here yesterday about really big, really tough issues – education, mostly — and whether anybody has the stomach or the stamina to keep working on them. My own personal fallback position usually is to hope somebody else does. So today another one: the chronically homeless mentally ill.

Between 1965 and 2009 the number of intellectually and developmentally challenged persons living in major public institutions fell by 85 percent in response to a series of changes in the law, not to mention changes in the culture.

The process usually called de-institutionalization sometimes gets a bad name because of the violence and disruption associated with severely mentally ill people who are homeless, but that ignores the vast positive changes wrought by the reintroduction of handicapped persons into mainstream life. The whole society has benefited from the inclusion in daily life of human beings who used to be hidden from view.

The actor Michael J. Fox, who has visible symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease, plays a character on the television series The Good Wife who is a disabled rascal, a lawyer who exploits his disability to gain undeserved sympathy from judges and juries. Using his own real disability as a foil, Fox creates a devilishly charming character the audience loves to hate.

It’s almost not possible to describe or quantify the amount of cultural and moral change the Fox character signifies. People old enough to remember will recall clearly, if they stop to think about it, that an actor with Fox’s symptoms could not be seen on television for any reason in the not terribly distant past. Now the audience can laugh along and even hiss at the appropriate moments.

So pulling the disabled out of the various hiding places where they were kept in earlier times has made life better not just for them but for all of us. It turns out the people we used to be afraid to look at are now wonderful additions to our lives.

But. When the mentally ill homeless are a problem, they can be a big problem, a tough one, a complicated issue right up there with climate change. It’s one of those issues I was talking about where I just hope somebody out there hasn’t given up and is still working on it.

And somebody is! I don’t know that they’ve found the solution — probably not all the way — but I’m just relieved to know they’re staying at it. Yesterday I toured The Cottages at Hickory Crossing, a development just east of downtown still under construction, designed to provide 50 freestanding 400-square-foot homes for 50 of the city’s chronic and disabled homeless people.

It’s all mud and containers and construction trailers now, but when you walk around you can already kind of get the drift. My guide, Marshall Bearor, a retired Highland Park police officer who will be the day manager, called it “a gated community.”

Gated. But they have to open the gate and let you out if you ask them. So it’s not a locked and gated institutional setting where people will effectively be incarcerated. It will be institutional in the sense that it will provide monitoring and services.

John Greenan, executive director of the Central Dallas Community Development Corp., developer of the project, told me a principal benefit to the community will be cost savings. He hopes housing a chronically homeless person in one of the cottages at Hickory Crossing will cost the taxpayers about $15,000 a year, versus an average of $40,000 per year per person to have the same person on the street.

How, you might ask, can it cost more to have somebody living on a bench than it costs to send most kids to college for a year? For that answer, you have to know more about who’s out there. Some of these are very expensive people.

In its 2015 survey of the Dallas homeless population, The Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance looked at the homeless two ways. They looked at all homeless lumped together, including people who are temporarily on the street. And they looked at the long-term or chronic homeless who live on the street for years, some for decades.

It’s the chronic homeless who are expensive. The MDHA 2015 survey found that over half of the chronic homeless are mentally ill and a third are drug addicts. It is this distillate of the population, drug addicted and/or mentally ill, who run up the public costs with ambulance trips, hospital visits and jail time, not to mention the cost of associated crime. By pulling them together into one location, the hope is that they can be rendered the services and assistance they need before they get off the rails or into trouble.

The concept of supportive housing is not new. In New York it has been so successful that the city is now trying to get people out of the housing when they no longer need it so that others can come in. But even with wrinkles and glitches, New York has learned the hard way that supportive housing is a better bet than leaving the violent mentally ill on the streets. Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced a new $22 million initiative just to canvas the streets searching for the potentially violent mentally ill so they can be connected to the help they need.

Here, Hickory Crossing has been a long time coming and has had to jump many hurdles in order to get this close to opening. For all the laudable efforts the city has seen on the homeless issue, including the private sector support for The Bridge shelter downtown, a certain element within the downtown business community keeps insisting the solution is to make the homeless disappear, especially the mentally ill, chronic homeless who present the biggest problem.

First of all, it’s against the law to make human beings disappear, even if or maybe especially if you try to use criminal laws to do it. Human beings — all beings who are human — have an absolute right to appear.

Last August the Justice Department filed briefs in federal district court in Idaho arguing that a community cannot criminalize homelessness if it fails to provide homes, because doing so is basically to criminalize existence.

But in the second place, we would never even get to the legal argument if everybody had a mother, a sister, a brother, a son, a niece, dear friend, spouse, lover or any loved one who had been mentally ill at some point. People who haven’t been there often have no inkling how fast the money runs out, how quickly the options wither and the unthinkable is upon them: The loved one is out there somewhere wandering the streets, sleeping next to door-cracks in winter, getting raped and beaten up, and the best that can be done is to search for them in the alleys and hope to get them cleaned up once in a while.

If everybody got just a little taste of that, then everybody would understand why the Cottages at Hickory Crossing, at $15,000 a year per occupant, is a steal. And even if it isn’t the perfect solution, isn’t it wonderful that somebody hasn’t given up and is still working on the solution?

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