Los Angeles County is Incarcerating Thousands of Mentally Ill Homeless People. A New Study Offers a Solution.

Criminalization of homelessness is an ongoing problem in large American cities, according to recent research. Many of these cities have passed ordinances that outlaw camping, sleeping in public areas, living in vehicles and even sitting or lying down in certain places (such as bus stops).

One of the areas most acutely affected by this phenomenon is Los Angeles County, where thousands of homeless and mentally people are incarcerated on any given day.

However, a new study from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) says that roughly half of this incarcerated population would be strong candidates for alternative approaches, including low income housing and support services.

Why a Lack of Resources Contributes to the Criminalization of Homelessness

Many people find themselves homeless largely due to a scarcity of affordable housing and a lack of mental health treatment options. Address these conditions, and homeless populations would shrink considerably.

That was the conclusion of the aforementioned DHHS study, released just last week. The study concluded that as many as 3,000 people in L.A. county would be eligible for release (either pre-trial or before the conclusion of their sentences) if greater resources were available.

Los Angeles County officials have been making some progress toward this goal. Three years ago, county officials created the Office of Diversion and Reentry, which aims to assist inmates with securing affordable housing in community-based settings, while also providing access to both medical and mental health care.

To date, the office has helped several thousand inmates find sustainable housing. More impressively, roughly 90-percent of those inmates remained in their new housing for at least six months.

County officials staged a press conference in late April to declare the program a success, and announce their intentions to expand the scope of the project.

Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey told assembled reporters that “our jails should not be used to house people whose behavior arose out of acute mental health crisis merely because it is believes, correctly or otherwise, that there is no other place to take that person to receive treatment.”

County officials have dedicated two new courtrooms to hear mental health cases, a move that will help increase eligibility for the county’s diversion program.

A Good Start, Yet Serious Challenges Remain

Though officials have voiced confidence in the county’s diversion program, efforts to expand access still face significant challenges. While county officials have stated a strong desire to expand the program, they have yet to reveal from where the necessary funding will come.

Additionally, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villaneuva pointed out that one-third of the 300 new inmates who enter county jails every day are diagnosed with some form of mental illness. Treating all of them through the diversion program is not feasible, as the program would need to be ten times its current size in order to accommodate that number of inmates.

Despite these challenges, recent developments in Los Angeles County represent a significant cultural shift in how homeless and mentally ill inmates are viewed and treated. Armed with new data, county officials understand the best way to attack the problem of homeless criminalization — now they simply need to find more money to pay for it.

If you or a loved one would benefit from the California mental health diversion program, it may be prudent to consult with an attorney. California mental health diversion cases can be quite complex, so it’s important to find an attorney with profound experience with this kind of litigation. Goldstein Law has assisted numerous California residents find a just and reasonable resolution to criminal charges. Contact us today for a free case evaluation.