From the Publisher: The Sheriff’s Deputies and the Homeless

Arnold G. York

Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times ran a front-page story on the increase of the homeless population in Los Angeles. The numbers have jumped 12 percent this past year in both the City and the County.

Malibu is no stranger to this phenomenon. In L.A., the problem is gentrification of areas like Venice, which is fast becoming Silicon Beach, and downtown L.A., which has also gone through major changes and gentrification. The effect of gentrification is spilling over into communities like Malibu with an influx of homeless people. The homeless are coming here in larger numbers for many of the same reasons that most of us came here. The weather is kind and gentle, and it’s possible to sleep outside under the stars, in a tent, or in some sort of make shift structure — and there are a lot of people who do just that. Also, on a whole, Malibu has a rather tolerant attitude toward the homeless, kind of a “live and let live” philosophy. It’s one of the things that make Malibu a nice place to live.

Generally speaking, homelessness in Malibu is not in your face. We don’t see the encampments up Malibu Creek and many other places in the hills, and, as a rule, the homeless don’t create a ruckus, but when they do, typically the sheriffs are called and that puts deputies in a very difficult position.

For one thing, the homeless who create a problem are more often than not those with alcohol or anger issues, mentally ill, or, in many cases, all of it. I know of an incident recently where the sheriffs were called and took the person into custody and a number of Malibu bystanders were very upset because they felt the sheriffs were hassling the homeless guy. When the deputies are called in, they are put into an immediate dilemma. They are required under the Welfare and Institutions Code to determine if this person is a danger to themselves or a danger to others or if they are gravely ill. If so, they can be taken in on an involuntary, 72-hour mental health hold. In our world, it’s the way the homeless get plugged into the mental health system. The problem is that the deputy has to make that determination on the fly, basically using his street savvy and gut instinct. A person considered gravely ill means they are unable to provide for their personal needs for food, clothing or shelter.

I was surprised to find out how many of the deputies know many of the homeless, both by name and often what their problems are, and when something is going very wrong and they need to be taken in. Once they get into the mental health court system, they can be held for 72 hours and if it’s more serious, for an additional 14 days after a hearing.

It’s by no means a perfect system. The deputies are not trained mental health professionals, but they still are required to make the judgments. Sometimes other homeless people alert them that someone is acting crazy, off their meds or getting into fights. Sometimes they can look at the homeless and see they have infections or physical injuries that need treatment. Most of the homeless are back out on the streets after the 72-hour hold.

Once in custody, officials can prescribe medications. But getting patients to follow medical directions and to take their medications is tough enough for people without mental health problems. Many of the homeless with mental health problems are resistant to the mental health drugs because although they may help to normalize behavior, at the same time they make the patients feel bad and they don’t like to take them.

So, let’s not jump all over the sheriff’s deputies on this one. They have to make some very difficult calls on mental health problems — quickly and on the street. In Malibu, there are a number of homeless people who do not have mental health problems, and being homeless is a lifestyle they have chosen or been forced into by circumstances. But, there are some who do have mental health problems ranging from minor to very serious and they have to be dealt with, and there is no one else but the sheriff’s deputies to do it.