Additional Support for Homeless Heading to Malibu

A homeless man sits on a bench at the Malibu Colony Plaza.

Tension has been growing over a perceived increase in homeless individuals—especially potentially dangerous homeless individuals—encamped in and around the Malibu Civic Center. But a new program from the LA County Sheriff’s Department will work to provide services to get mentally ill homeless people services they need—including removing them from the community if need be.

At last month’s Public Safety Commission meeting, two residents made public comments expressing concern about aggressive and “frightening” homeless people near the public library and Malibu Bluffs Park—saying they were afraid to take their children to those places. The commission decided to invite the sheriff’s department and homeless advocacy nonprofit The People Concern to this month’s meeting to explain what services are available for mentally ill homeless. 

John Gannon, who commands all 23 of the LA County Sheriff Department’s recently expanded Mental Evaluation Team (MET) units, personally presented an overview of the program. 

“If you’re an officer out in the field and there’s a mental health ‘crisis,’ with someone presenting a danger to him- or herself or others, we send out a mental health team in order to get a better outcome,” he explained.

“We used to be second responders, but have now become co-responders,” Gannon went on to say. “That’s our new role. We arrive on the scene at the same time as the black-and-whites.”

One of the reasons for the new role is that “the LA County jail has become the No. 1 provider of mental health services in the U.S.,” Gannon said. “We’re trying to change that.” The county expanded its program just last year to help people facing mental health emergencies get into treatment instead of jail. 

People with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than other civilians approached or stopped by law enforcement, according to a 2015 study released by the Treatment Advocacy Center and cited by Gannon. Law enforcement officers were traditionally given little training in recognizing the signs of mental illness or in how to de-escalate a crisis situation. 

“In 1992, we had five MET teams; in 2015-16, LA County received 23 units after that study came out,” he said. A team consists of a specially trained deputy and a clinician—which Gannon described as “a two-person SWAT team trained to the national standard on intervention techniques.”

Gannon explained that in the past, MET units hadn’t been very accessible to Malibu/Lost Hills sheriff’s deputies because of distances, but the station will finally be getting its own MET unit in June.

The legal system still hamstrings law enforcement in terms of what they can do if they pick up a severely mentally ill person that’s agitated and aggressive, Gannon explained. They can put them on “involuntary hold” at a mental health facility, also known as a Section 5150, for up to 72 hours, which also involves driving long distances. If the individual then wants to leave, there’s no legal way to stop them.

The number of people placed on involuntary holds increased 14 percent in Lost Hills/Malibu over the past five years, a relatively small increase compared to the 183 percent increase in West Hollywood or the 182 percent increase in Lancaster.

Brandon Barclay of the LA County Sheriff’s Department will supervise the Lost Hills MET team and several others. He spoke about the LA Found program, where individuals at risk of wandering off, like those with Alzheimer’s, dementia or autism, can participate in a voluntary system of trackable bracelets.

The sheriff’s department works cooperatively with The People Concern, which has been under contract to the City of Malibu for the past couple of years to provide two full-time members of a homeless outreach team to the city. Alex Gittinger, who supervises the team, explained that their job is to develop relationships with Malibu homeless and get them into services and housing—and they’ve been very successful.

He noted that 12 of the transients staying in the Civic Center area are already in some type of transitional housing, and another 20 have housing applications submitted. The process of getting them into housing takes time. In addition, Gittinger said there are plans for mental health professionals to be based at the Malibu Library two or three days a week, and plans for an additional security guard.

The People Concern team accompanies a psychiatrist from Venice Family Clinic, Dr. Wesley Ryan, who comes to Malibu every Thursday for field psychiatry visits—getting as many of the mentally ill homeless back on their meds as possible. Those with severe problems, like untreated psychotic or bipolar disorders, have to get back on their medications before it’s possible to have a coherent conversation to help them. 

According to presenters, County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl strongly supports the MET program. In fact, the Office of Diversion and Reentry was created by the LA County Board of Supervisors in September 2015 to keep “persons with mental and/or substance use disorders” out of jail and provide them with support services instead.