Thursday, November 08, 2007

Gavin Newsom: Homeless need your compassion

Can Gavin Newsom make San Francisco a leader in compassion for the homeless?

"Newsom," says political strategist Mark Mosher, "has a real opportunity to throw his traditional caution to the wind. Same sex marriage was totally courageous nationally, and somewhat so in the state, but in San Francisco it was a popular and sensible idea. So what are the most difficult issues now?"

Here's a suggestion. The streets of San Francisco.

That suggestion would be a good one for the leader of virtually any American City. At any given time, there are many more people with untreated severe psychiatric illnesses living on America’s streets than are receiving care in hospitals. The uproar is growing. The San Francisco Chronicle’s C.W. Nevius sees an opportunity for Mayor Newsom to make San Francisco an example of compassion by, among other things, implementing Laura’s Law.

Civic leaders familiar with convention bookings are concerned the city is losing business because visitors are spooked by encounters with homeless people and vagrants. Incidents like the one on Oct. 25, when a mentally ill man assaulted a police officer at Justin Herman Plaza, reinforce the perception the streets are not safe.

And it isn't just a dollars and cents issue. As anyone who walks the streets of the city knows, that man is not alone. Wednesday morning, anyone who walked past Sixth and Howard could see a barefoot man with a stick, standing on the corner and screaming unintelligible threats at pedestrians. For him to be on the street, alone and delusional, doesn't serve anyone.

As Dariush Kayhan, executive director of San Francisco Connect, which works with the homeless in the community, says, "If there is any city that has a large number
of mentally disturbed people on the streets, it is San Francisco."

That's why a good first step would be to find funds to implement Laura's Law, the California initiative that empowers local authorities to require mentally disturbed people to submit to a program if they have been refusing to do so voluntarily. Not only is it is a good idea, but San Francisco is in a unique position to do it. Laura's Law must be funded by California counties; the door is open for San Francisco, which is one of the few major cities that is also its own county.

This is a humanitarian issue – getting treatment will save them from a horrific life (the majority of homeless individuals with untreated psychiatric illnesses regularly forage through garbage cans and dumpsters for their food) and repeated victimization. One report on homeless women in San Francisco noted the women were being raped and sexually assaulted at an alarming rate, with some women being raped as many as 17 times. To protect themselves from attack, homeless women were known to wear 10 pairs of panty hose at once and bundle up in layers of clothing.

Randall Hagar, director of Government Affairs for the California Psychiatric Association, put it best:

"This is a humanitarian thing," says Hagar, the Laura's Law supporter. "It can reduce suffering for a group of people who are otherwise unreachable."

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