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Homeless, Mentally Ill and Behind Bars

The homeless suffer from mental illness at far higher rates than the general population. Too often, we put them in jail, which just makes things worse. We need to start with criminal justice reform.

A homeless man in handcuffs after arrest by police officers.
Police officers arrest a homeless man for possession of a stolen shopping cart during a sweep of Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
We're entering the second year of the coronavirus pandemic, and we've yet to fully reckon with the impact of COVID-19 on mental health. Research is still emerging about the devastating surge in mental illness for both the young and the old. It's undeniable we're facing a full-blown mental health crisis.

But nowhere is this crisis more acute than in the homeless population. The homeless suffer from mental illness at a rate far higher than that of the general population. And to make matters worse, the homeless regularly lack access to care providers and facilities; instead, they too often wind up locked away in jail cells. Lifetime arrest rates for the homeless number between 62.9 percent and 90 percent.

The homeless need our help. While it will take time to change the way America handles mental illness, the best place we can start is with reform of the criminal justice system that disproportionately criminalizes and incarcerates the homeless.

Researchers have long been aware of the intersections among mental illness, homelessness and criminal justice. There are more than 550,000 homeless people on the streets on any given night in the United States. Forty-five percent of them suffer from mental illness, and the homeless are 11 times likelier to be incarcerated than the rest of the population. One study by psychologists at the University of California, San Francisco, found that 16 percent of the incarcerated population is homeless and that 30 percent of homeless inmates had a diagnosis of mental illness.

The reasons behind this conjuncture of mental illness, homelessness and criminal justice are complex. Some states, like Georgia, discharge sufferers from mental illness to homeless shelters or extended-stay motels, creating an influx of mental illness in the homeless population and destabilizing homeless communities. The homeless also suffer from substance abuse and addiction at a higher rate than other populations: One study found that nearly 35 percent of homeless adults had a substance abuse problem. And substance abuse disorders are bound to lead to confrontations with police.

But perhaps the biggest factors are overcriminalization and a lack of adequate staff and resources to handle mental illness. Police officers simply aren't trained to deal with mental illness and addiction. What good are handcuffs and the threat of imprisonment to someone suffering from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or crippling addiction? At the same time, state and local governments are all too eager to attach criminal penalties to minor infractions. How many of the homeless are thrown in jail for the "crime" of loitering, causing a public disturbance, sleeping outside, or violating mask mandates and social distancing protocols?

What's more, regular confrontations with police and frequent incarceration can only worsen mental illness. The Treatment Advocacy Center reports that mentally ill inmates stay longer in prison than their counterparts and are at an elevated risk of suicide while in jail. And while imprisoned, the mentally ill receive zero mental health care. Is it at all likely that their lives will be better upon release?

Our criminal justice system simply isn't designed to provide care for people experiencing homelessness and mental illness. And once the homeless and mentally ill start having encounters with the criminal justice system, it's very hard to turn things around. People who get involved with the justice system have their lives upended; they are cut off from support networks, deprived of most social contact, and branded with social stigma and legal restrictions. Upon release, it's nearly impossible for many of them to get back on their feet, and they end up stuck in the same behaviors that landed them in prison in the first place. For the homeless, it's easy to fall into a never-ending cycle of incarceration.

Criminal justice reform can make a big difference, and state and local governments can lead. City and state officials can't do much about overcriminalization at the federal level, but they can address it at the local level. There's no good reason why a homeless person who falls asleep in a public park should end up in jail. Furthermore, most of the responsibility to build and fund care facilities for mental illness and substance abuse falls to state and local governments.

Local officials also can do a lot to reduce their overreliance on the police force to handle the mentally ill and homeless. But they need to recognize the problem we're facing today and take action now. There may be more we can do down the line, but to start we should look at the way our criminal justice system feeds into homelessness and mental illness and start crafting local solutions.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition
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