Every morning, I drive to work down Brush Street, from 12th to 2nd streets, in Oakland. Every day I drive under the highway, I pass by pathetic collections of piled debris stacked against the fences, each an elaborate construction with a soft, sick human being in the middle.
Under the highway, seeking a moment of safety and stillness, these sad, (all of them) men, are finishing their dangerous night where they hope that they will get some sleep, not be robbed and live to see the day.
Their hopes are fueled by whatever they can find to numb their fears and pain, whatever can tamp down the horrors of their own minds.
I spent several years working as an attorney with the county agencies that are tasked with the care of these people, at first representing social workers seeking to keep the worst of the worst in hospitals where they can get medical help for their sick brains and bodies, later as a hearing officer making the decision whether individuals could be kept in psychiatric hospitals against their wishes.
I've read thousands of files, discussed their cases with doctors and social workers, met their families and had the opportunity to question them for myself about their pasts, presents and futures.
I never met one individual living on the street who was not what is known as dual diagnosis. That means both mentally ill and addicted to drugs or alcohol.
I learned that people who were either mentally ill or addicted could maintain shelter, even if it was marginal, with slippage. If the person was habitually on the street, he or she was inevitably dual diagnosis. I cannot vouch for every single person in this country, only the people I personally encountered in my work.
Our model for the severely impaired is to protect their civil rights. "Living on the street is a life choice," I heard from their attorneys and advocates, countless numbers of times. "It's not a choice you or I would make, but it's their choice."
How loudly can I say rubbish to this model.
A victim of PTS, schizophrenia, or bipolar disease might have enough lucidity to make that choice, but guess what? That's not the choice they make. Same with drug addicts and alcoholics. But a mentally ill, addicted person does not have the capacity to make choices. Any choices.
Choices take judgment and judgment is the first to go with drugs and with mental illness.
Letting the most vulnerable people in our society make life-threatening choices when they have impaired judgment is not protecting people's civil rights. It is cruel abandonment.
Many of these people have families who tried to help, but when prevented by our very own courts and laws from saving their loved ones, gave up, and now just feel sorrow and fear when the phone rings at night.
This is a public health problem, not a civil rights problem. We are letting people kill themselves right in front of us. For shame.
We are degrading the quality of our society by allowing people who desperately need help to survive by begging quarters on the streets.
We are providing a vector for incubating drug-resistant diseases. We are tempting predators by providing them with helpless victims.
Most shameful of all, we are condemning the people who need help the most, lie on the street, under their sad little mounds of their possessions and be consumed by their sickness. We justify this in the name of civil liberty.
Who's the crazy one here?
Diane Baker is a Berkeley resident and Oakland business owner.