As LA’s homeless count increases every year, so does the number of unhoused individuals with acute mental health issues, creating what Venice Family Clinic calls a “humanitarian crisis” on the city’s streets.
Venice Family Clinic is the largest street medicine provider and offers a range of supportive mental and physical health services to an ever growing homeless clientele.
Dr. Coley King, VFC’s director of homeless health care, says the County’s failure to provide adequate shelter to move people off the streets is a contributing force behind this crisis.
“Being in the street, in and of itself, is a highly traumatic experience,” said King. “So those individuals who are in the streets in general will suffer from some type of post traumatic syndrome, develop depression, develop anxiety, develop addictions, which can lead to many other challenges.”
While some individuals fall into homelessness due to mental health issues, King said that this is only the case for a minority of unhoused individuals.
From his years of experience working on the streets he has found that the majority of people fall into homelessness due to socioeconomic factors. He said that life on the streets will then lead to or exacerbate mental illness and addiction issues.
Venice Family Clinic has a range of strategies to tackle these issues. Their street medicine teams have been bringing service directly to homeless individuals for years, while a newly launched mobile medicine van allows them to perform lab tests, examinations, and vaccinations on site.
Unfortunately, these services can only do so much to stem the rising tide of mentally ill homeless individuals.
In order to address this issue the L.A. County Department of Mental Health is trying to build a new mental health response and treatment system. The department director Jonathan Sherin has big goals for this transformation, but said the department lacks the resources to tackle the full scope of the issue.
“We have a humanitarian crisis in our country. Los Angeles County and the City of Los Angeles are the epicenter of that humanitarian crisis,” said Sherin. “How dare we not at the federal level and the state level and the local level make this a disaster response of the highest order?”
Part of the problem is that the burden of responding to mental health crises has been largely placed on law enforcement officers, while this is neither their primary role nor a job they have been trained for.
Sherin calls for a three step revamping of the County’s approach to mental health.
The first step is creating a regional call center designed to respond to mental health crises. Next, health and human services’ response needs to be ramped up so that psychiatric mobile response teams can be deployed in real time. The final piece is providing individuals experiencing a mental health crisis with a place to go that is not limited to jail or an emergency room.
“We have a mental health pandemic on our hands and are seeing so many different challenges that I believe are just beginning to ratchet up,” said Sherin. “We as a country and as a state must treat mental health and addictions challenges with the same level of resources that we do physical health challenges.”
While both Coley and Sherin noted that awareness of the importance of funding mental health services is growing, they fear this attitude shift is not happening fast enough.