Friday, March 20, 2015
Opinion: They aren't homeless, they're sick
By Thomas Widroe
March 1, 2015

The media has it all wrong and so do we when it comes to understanding what's called the homeless problem — not only here in Santa Barbara but all over the country. Yahoo recently ran a story praising celebrity and former Playboy Playmate Kendra Wilkinson for giving some money to a homeless man as she was entering a convenience store. It's not that the blond bombshell's act of charity wasn't kind, but rather that it ignores the real problem of severe mental illness: drug addiction and alcoholism.

The vast majority of those we see on State Street occupying benches, sidewalks and elevators with their bodies, shopping carts and blankets aren't only homeless. They are very sick and suffering from debilitating psychological syndromes or patterns. Homelessness is just one of many symptoms associated with their affliction and/or addictions. In fact, were they given homes in which to live, the vast majority would abandon those homes and return to the street. That's the result of depression, disparity, bipolar disorder, paranoid schizophrenia and more. Associated addictions include alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and others. The dangerous combination of hard drugs, alcohol and severe mental disorder creates a state of mind in which the individual can't think straight, suffers hallucinations and delusions, demonstrates bizarre behavior, urinates and defecates in public, and even worse may be potentially prone to, or the victim of, violence and/or suicide.

Instead of providing health care and medical treatment to these people, various cities across the nation enable their squalid, regressed condition. In Seattle, advocates crow that the city is building the nation's largest tent city. Here in Santa Barbara, we tolerate the mess while business and tourism suffer the cost of many millions of dollars in lost revenue. Our public square is held hostage by those with no regard for the needs of community at large.

The good news is that the problem can be solved. The mentally ill on the street require the care of a physician who can treat them effectively through a regimen of psychotherapy and medication until they are able to return to society as functioning individuals. Law enforcement already has the authority to assist those in need of care by moving them into treatment facilities when they are deemed a danger to self, a danger to others or gravely disabled.

At Santa Barbara City Watch, we reject the status quo. In the coming weeks and months, we will work closely with various community organizations, elected officials, law enforcement, and the professional mental health care community to develop a plan that really works. This means that when the police bring the gravely disabled in off the street, rather than jailing them for a few hours and turning them loose, they will instead receive a mandatory minimum of 72 hours in an acute treatment facility with the strong possibility of another 14 days of care thereafter.

The end result of these efforts is that those who come to want help will receive treatment. Those who do not want treatment will most likely leave Santa Barbara to live in other enabling communities like Seattle. This kind of tough love and community responsibility gives real hope to the sick and an opportunity for the rest of us to reclaim our public spaces for everyone.

However, the change won't start until we stop patting ourselves on the back for giving a few loose coins to a person who's falling apart before our very eyes.

Tom Widroe is managing director of City Watch. A UCSB graduate, he has been active in Santa Barbara County business and public policy for over 25 years.

The author is managing director of City Watch.
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