Homeless, mentally ill: a California case shows the flaws in the system | New policies

By JANIE HAR, Associated Press

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — The big brother Suzette Chaumette remembers was witty and kind, an aspiring historian at the University of California, Berkeley whose promise was derailed by mental illness. Over the decades, he struggled with bipolar disorder, going in and out of hospitals and halfway houses and finding himself homeless.

In June, she saw him on local news lying on the ground and under arrest for allegedly throwing a water bottle at California Governor Gavin Newsom. Authorities called the 54-year-old “aggressive”. It was the first time she had seen him in years.

“I never thought he would be that guy, but he is that guy,” she said, crying. “He’s not a bad guy. He has big intentions and would really take help if he was in the right place.

In California, a quarter of the 161,000 homeless people also suffer from serious mental illness. An estimated 37,000 people flip between nonprofits and public agencies, roaming ERs, prisons and the streets, sometimes for decades, with no one monitoring their overall care in a fractured system. that no one really knows how to fix.

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There aren’t enough places for people like Suzette’s brother, Serge Chaumette, who likely need long-term clinical care, says Paul C. Webster, director of the Hope Street Coalition. People with brain disorders need a range of life situations where they can “opt out” of supervision as they improve.

But government reimbursement for this type of care is low to non-existent, he says. Medicaid, for example, will not pay for treatment in “mental illness facilities” that have more than 16 beds.

“The public just doesn’t know. They are crazy about all the encampments and people on the streets because they don’t understand what it takes to deal with it other than to take them out,” said East Bay Chapter Vice President Margot Dashiell. of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Meanwhile, families are quietly suffering. Suzette Chaumette debated speaking to The Associated Press about a private pain that spilled into public view only after a chance meeting with the state’s top elected official.

“Mental health is a family matter,” she said. “He does not live in isolation.”

The June meeting between the governor and Chaumette was brief.

Newsom, 53, was in downtown Oakland promoting small business when he was “approached by an aggressive individual,” said Fran Clader, spokesperson for the California Highway Patrol, which provides the governor security. Newsom appeared unharmed and joked about the incident.

Chaumette was imprisoned and released within a day. He does not have a cell phone and his family did not know where he was.

He did not appear at arraignment hearings the following month in a separate case in which he allegedly spat at an officer in March as he was taken to a county-run mental hospital in involuntary detention.

On Friday, Alameda County Deputy Public Defender Jeff Chorney said Chaumette was receiving treatment for her illness and all charges should be dropped.

“We cannot continue to treat people with mental health issues by locking them in a cage,” he said in a statement.

Governments at all levels have been disinvesting in mental health for decades. John F. Kennedy wanted to replace state asylums with federal community clinics, but the transition never happened. States have begun to cut psychiatric beds, and those that are available are increasingly reserved for defendants, the Treatment Advocacy Center of Virginia reported.

No state meets the gold standard for care, but some cities have innovative programs, said Elizabeth Sinclair Hancq, the center’s research director. New York City has a pioneering mental health lodge tackling social isolation, while Tucson, Arizona uses a robust crisis center model to connect people to services and bypass prison.

Recognizing those shortcomings, Newsom signed a $12 billion homelessness spending plan this year, including converting motel rooms to housing and improving facilities for people with addictions and mental illness. More than a quarter of the country’s approximately 580,000 homeless residents live in California.

“We have to take responsibility, the responsibility to do more and do better, and that’s what this budget intends to do,” said Newsom, a Democrat.

Mental health experts say the United States needs more of everything: inpatient beds, outpatient treatment and longer-term housing. Still, that might sound fantastic with underfunded public health, overstretched social workers, and out-of-reach housing prices, especially in the cost-prohibitive San Francisco Bay Area.

Teresa Pasquini is a former Contra Costa County Mental Health Commissioner who documented her family’s struggle to get help for her son, who suffers from schizoaffective disorder. She wondered about the man accused of throwing a bottle at the governor.

“Moms like me are kind of like, ‘Is this one of ours? It looks like it is,'” she said. “They have nowhere to go and so they are continually rejected and imprisoned, and it is a humanitarian crisis that no one talks about.

Chaumette grew up in Oakland, the only son of accountants who fled political unrest in Haiti when he was a baby. Like many immigrants, his parents worked hard to provide him and his sisters with a better life: Catholic school, music lessons and a comfortable home where the family conversed in French.

Bipolar disorder causes dramatic changes in thinking and behavior. He had his first manic episode in his early 20s, cutting clothes and smearing car oil inside the house, his sister said.

“That’s when my mom and my sisters and I looked at each other and said, ‘This isn’t normal,'” she said.

It took a long time to get the correct diagnosis, and although her brother had periods of stability, it never lasted. He bounced around agencies, those in his care didn’t communicate or left, and there was little consistency, his sister said. Records show he attempted to continue his education at UC Berkeley, where he was enrolled on and off from 1987 to 2003.

The last time the siblings saw each other on a regular basis was when he was living in a rundown Oakland halfway house. But the building burned down in 2017, killing four people. Chaumette was among those who became homeless in a city where the average monthly apartment rent is $2,700.

“The public perception is often that the family kicked the individual out or the family doesn’t care, but very often that’s not the case,” said Sinclair Hancq, research director. “The family tried.”

In Alameda County, where Chaumette was arrested, a mental health advisory board is calling for more housing, licensed beds and coordination. Board chair Lee Davis, who also has bipolar disorder, says she is lucky to be responding to medication and to be able to keep a home and a job.

But living with the disorder can also mean repeatedly yelling a racial slur to rid him of the universe, thinking his cats’ nap will make up for his lack of sleep, or breaking a window because “inside and out were to merge”.

Mania should not be criminalized, she says. “Why is there no number to call to report a mental health crisis?”

Chaumette has been in and out of the criminal justice system for decades, largely for misdemeanors that resulted in probation. It is unclear what kind of help he may have received through the courts, as health records are confidential and off-limits even to family.

Suzette Chaumette is wary of political promises.

“His life is so much more than the mental illness that has gripped him all his life,” she said, adding that she wanted people to “see him as a human being, not just a case – qu ‘he really gave life a chance.”

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