Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - June 21, 2006

Board of Contributors: Helping mentally ill the right way helps entire community

by Jeff Blum

Read enough of my Guest Opinions and you may discover that occasionally I can be practical. Perhaps it is luck that makes me sometimes hit the nail on the head, or, perhaps, to the amazement of my children, I have learned some practical answers from living 55 years.

I had real concerns about Palo Alto hiring a police auditor. I took a hard look at pluses and minuses and looked for alternatives. I wondered whether there is a serious enough problem with the department to justify spending the money for an auditor. The City Council in May agreed to a one-year trial, a cautious step.

A recent opportunity I had to be practical was when the HRC was asked to adopt a resolution calling for the impeachment of President Bush and Vice-President Cheney. I thought it was not worth pursuing because Senator Russell Feingold got nowhere with his attempt to censure President Bush in the Senate and I believe our time personally is more productively spent in supporting better candidates for office.

My latest attempt at being practical is to suggest that Palo Alto and Santa Clara County adopt the San Rafael Police Department's Mental Health Liaison program.

This progressive and seemingly successful effort was born out of a terrible situation: Merchants, residents and visitors to San Rafael were so displeased with mentally ill homeless individuals in the community that police were charging them with "nuisance crimes" to get them off the street — not unlike some of the allegations made in the past about Palo Alto police.

The traditional approach to dealing with mentally ill homeless persons failed in San Rafael as it has everywhere else. According to the United States Bureau of Justice, one in five inmates in local jails report mental health problems but less than half receive treatment, and there is a high ratio as well in state prisons

Without proper treatment the offenders commit the same nuisance crimes once they are released from jail. Simply put, we cannot reasonably expect most of the mentally ill to make a clear connection between crime and punishment. Cities waste a lot of money and resources in booking, fingerprinting and incarcerating mentally ill homeless offenders.

Now, the San Rafael Police Department's Mental Health Liaison program keeps most mentally ill offenders from going to jail. Instead, they are put into housing and provided treatment and access to other community services.

San Rafael's program is run by Joel Fay, a police officer who holds a degree in psychology. He describes himself as a part-time police officer, social worker, detective and friend to the homeless.

Officer Fay's job starts with gaining trust with the mentally ill homeless. He befriends them, which in some cases can take him months. Once he has built some trust he offers them basic services, such as food, clothes or a hot shower. He helps persuade them to take their medication and to seek treatment for their physical ailments.

When he believes the time is right, instead of arresting a homeless offender or throwing him or her into a psychiatric ward, Officer Fay wraps the person into the countywide arms of a Forensic Multidisciplinary Team — more than 25 mental health, homeless advocacy and law enforcement agencies, including representatives from the district attorney's office, probation, public defender's office and sheriff's offices.

Each month team members meet to discuss tactics and develop treatment plans for individuals in the program. They discuss the person's life and what contributed him or her to become homeless. A detailed game plan is created for each person.

The team focuses on specific goals, from getting the person to wear socks to getting the person a job. Sometimes, the team has to take drastic measures, such as by hospitalizing or jailing people or taking control of their Social Security disability checks until they get the treatment they require.

Apparently, no other police force in the country has a program quite like San Rafael's. The success it has had in reducing service calls about the mentally ill and in motivating courts to hand down sentences emphasizing treatment, rather than punishment, is motivating Officer Fay to tell other jurisdictions about it.

I heard his presentation in Palo Alto as the HRC's liaison to the Off The Streets Team.

I like the idea of a program that emphasizes the human spirit's ability to recover with the assistance of experts rather than emphasizing punishment. But what really sells me on the San Rafael program is its focus on seeking practical solutions.

Since I am starting to feel ever more practical these days, with age and new opportunity, I am going to ask for support and help in instituting San Rafael's program in Palo Alto and perhaps neighboring communities, or a customized program very much like it in conjunction perhaps with the soon-to-open Opportunities Center. n

Jeff Blum, a family law attorney practicing in Redwood City, is a member of the Palo Alto Human Relations Commission. He can be e-mailed at blumesq@aol.com.

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