When thinking of morality, people often remember great acts of kindness, mercy, and love. They think about a firefighter saving someone from a burning building, a nurse setting aside time to read to children with cancer, or a social worker providing support to a troubled teenager. These are all courtesies that everyone can agree are “moral.” However, when it comes to addiction and homelessness, especially where the mentally ill are involved, political and social leaders tend to disagree on how to “morally” handle this growing epidemic.
This disagreement lies in the heart of Los Angeles’ Skid Row area. In this part of L.A., homeless drug users have no support in helping them stay away from addictive substances. Combined with mental illness, they frequently disobey laws, endanger others around them and seek out more substances. They are also the most vulnerable to being victimized by others.
Crime on the streets of Skid Row is common. In fact, within the five to 10-block area of Skid Row, there have been more than 13,000 officer-involved incidents in the last 12 months. For years, the state of California has fought this addiction epidemic in the trenches. Nonetheless, mentally ill, homeless addicts still wander the streets of the area.
A progressive state, California has funded numerous social programs to deal with the issue. However, the programs have done little to prevent addiction and homelessness. In order to understand the problem, one must consider how it started in the first place.
Drug Abuse and Homelessness in California
Since the 1800s, the discussion of how to handle mental illness as a society has been met with progressive and conservative views. Much like other issues, the progress toward caring for the mentally ill has been slow.
At first, the solution to mental illness in America was to have authorities separate the mentally ill — regardless of their rights — from the rest of society. In the 19th century, this conservative approach was typically the case. Due to the time-period norms and the lack of scientific understanding of psychiatric disorders, many of those suffering from mental illness ended up in prison. There, they were neglected and mistreated. Over time, the issue became prominent and medical research began to discover new information and treatment for mental illness. As a result, state governments, as well as religious organizations, began opening mental institutions, or asylums. This is when the progressive views on the issue began to come forward.
This first progressive solution was supposed to move mentally ill patients out of prisons and into mental institutions where they could be properly cared for. Doing so would, hypothetically, prevent the abuse they were receiving while locked in prisons. Nevertheless, an article in Forbes chronicles how these institutions lost credibility over time.
“In many respects, the mental institutions were a step in the right direction, but by the middle of the 20th century, their reputation was in tatters. They were understaffed and overcrowded. Some patients were poorly treated, even abused. Others were neglected.”
To put it simply, this progressive answer to the problem of mental illness was not effective. Forbes notes that this changed when people noticed the deplorable conditions of these institutions.
“Reformers felt they could do better. In 1945 they proposed community-based clinics not just to treat but also to prevent mental illness,” Forbes reports. “They called for a federal takeover.”
When the federal government took over and created these community-based clinics, it was another progressive political act to help the mentally ill, while ensuring their civil rights. However, these progressive ideas were said to have been taken too far, too fast. They ended up shutting down the mental institutions that were once home to many struggling patients. Forbes also notes the circumstances of dismantling the institutions.
“Over the next two decades, state mental hospitals would empty out. But the vast majority of released patients ended up homeless on the street.”
It is known that those with mental illness tend to cope by means of self-medication, which often leads to addiction. It is no secret that mentally ill patients who were once locked up in asylums across the country couldn’t cope with life on the streets. Because of their lack of care, the mentally ill who self-medicated developed addictions to heroin, meth, cocaine, and various painkillers. As time went on, the number of drug-related deaths, such as overdoses, began to spike.
Unfortunately, there was no alternative to the institutions. This caused a spike in homelessness that has never gone away. Case in point, California. For decades, these problems with addiction and homelessness, particularly with the mentally ill, have raged on.
California was now faced not just with more homeless people, but also more mentally ill, drug-addicted homeless people. Thus, Harm Reduction and Housing First was born.
The heavy-handed approach of conservatives’ mandatory addiction care was seen as a harsh infringement on human rights. But contending with their own failures, progressives began focusing on a new approach that is used in California. This approach is known as “Harm Reduction and Housing First.” City Journal Magazine reports that this dual approach is still around — and still ineffective.
“For the past decade, political leaders have relied on two major policies to address the crisis— ‘harm reduction’ and ‘housing first’— but despite $619 million in spending in 2018, more people are on the streets than ever.”
The harm reduction program establishes a system by which drug users can safely take addictive substances. This state-funded program in California administers clean needles and naloxone to drug users to prevent infections and overdose deaths. But according to City Journal Magazine, this has not changed life on Skid Row.
“The Center for Harm Reduction unquestionably saves lives: its needle exchange reduces the rates of infectious disease transmission, and its naloxone kits reverse hundreds of overdoses per year. Still, it’s a brutal calculus, measuring overall ‘harm reduction’ against a baseline of worst-case scenarios. And outside this limited framework, no evidence exists that harm reduction reduces overall rates of addiction, crime, and overdose deaths.
“In fact, despite a steady expansion of harm-reduction services, last year was the deadliest on record for Los Angeles County, with meth-related overdose deaths up more than 1,000 percent from 2008, claiming Skid Row as its epicenter. In the Central Division, crime has increased 59 percent since 2010, with officers responding to 13,122 incidents last year, including 2,698 assaults, 2,453 thefts, and 1,350 car break-ins, a trend doubtless intensified by the addiction crisis”
For many, the belief is that California is merely treating the symptoms of the problem, but not the problem itself.
The “Housing First” initiative aims to bring free housing to those struggling with addiction and homelessness, or those stricken by poverty. This progressive solution to handling those with addiction ultimately failed due to the mismanagement of state funds. Overall, according to City Journal, L.A. has failed in its efforts to fight homelessness.
“In 2016, Los Angeles voters approved Proposition HHH, authorizing $1.2 billion in new spending, with the goal of constructing 10,000 units of ‘affordable housing’ over the following decade,” the City Journal reported. “Nearly three years later, the city has finished only 72 units, costing $690,692 apiece, cost inflation that the city comptroller has called ‘utterly unacceptable.’ In total, Los Angeles spent a total of $619 million on homelessness last year —more than double the previous year’s budget — but the number of people on the streets rose by 16 percent.
“Harm reduction’s major limitation is that its practitioners lack a viable method for moving addicts into treatment and beyond their addictions.”
Morality in Fighting Addiction
According to L.A. County records, the second-leading cause of death in the county is drug and alcohol overdose at 21 percent — second only to coronary heart disease. This is one of the highest drug-and-alcohol overdose rates in the country. In addition, there are 40,000 individuals in L.A. County this year who are homeless.
“California made homelessness worse by making perfect housing the enemy of good housing, by liberalizing drug laws, and by opposing mandatory treatment for mental illness and drug addiction,” Forbes reports.
Although there is much to be said about the problem of addiction laws, differing views, and political action, the issue boils down to how we view freedom of choice. Does a person with addiction have the right to exercise their addictive behaviors safely if that is their choice? Or is California enabling drug users and neglecting “moral” standards?
As individuals, we often see morality very clearly when it is black and white. It is easy to know that helping someone after a car accident is preferable to just driving away. Similarly, providing dinner to a neighbor struggling with a deadly disease is better than acting like they don’t exist. It is easy to tell that these actions are moral, merciful, and compassionate.
However, when it comes to addiction, there is nothing but gray. The only evidence in this fight is the ineffectiveness of the previous solutions that were in place. With the progressive laws California has implemented, it is obvious that these approaches are not working as homelessness among the mentally ill and those with substance use disorder rise. However, would conservative approaches see more success? As long as addiction exists, this argument will never cease.
In the long run, addiction and homelessness are issues that transcend political opinions and agendas. Lives are lost every day to this epidemic. That being said, seeking help for yourself or someone you love is always an effective solution. Those who seek recovery will find aid if they ask for it.
If someone you know is homeless and/or suffering from addiction, don’t hesitate to call 626-602-2966 for help. We can assist with finding a treatment center to get to the root of the problem.
By Michael Tavernier