Being Homeless & Mentally Ill

As we noted yesterday, the policy of deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill has created huge problems for the mentally ill who are homeless, portrayed in this article from City Journal.

An excerpt.

Early last February, Jerome Murdough, homeless and seeking shelter from freezing temperatures, was arrested for trespassing in the stairwell of an East Harlem housing project. Unable to post his $2,500 bail, the 56-year-old Marine veteran with a history of mental illness remained in police custody. A week later, on the evening of February 14, he was transferred to a solitary cell in the mental-observation unit of New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex. Guards were supposed to check on Murdough every 15 minutes, but he was not fully observed until early the next morning, when it became apparent that a malfunction in the prison’s climate-control system had heated his 6-by-10-foot cinder-block room into the triple digits. When discovered slumped over his bed, Murdough’s lifeless body registered a core temperature of more than 100 degrees. Headlines blared that Murdough had been “Baked to Death on Rikers Island.”

Murdough’s gruesome death prompted New York City mayor Bill de Blasio to announce his first major law-enforcement initiative, the Task Force on Behavioral Health and the Criminal Justice System. Set to issue findings this September, it will seek recommendations from city police, judges, district attorneys, and mental-health workers on “innovative strategies to transform, reform and update this city’s criminal justice system.” In a statement, de Blasio said that the task force will allow the city to “provide real, lasting mental health and addiction treatment” for the city’s mentally ill. “For far too long,” he continued, “our city’s jails have acted as de facto mental health facilities.”

The mayor is right that the criminal-justice system dedicates inordinate resources to policing mental illness, often with disgraceful results. In this regard, New York’s experience mirrors that of much of the country. A 2010 study by the Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC) found that there were “three times more seriously mentally ill persons in jails and prisons than in hospitals.” Sheriffs’ associations estimate that the mentally ill make up over a quarter of inmates in their jails. According to E. Fuller Torrey, the founder of TAC, the Los Angeles County Jail has become the largest de facto inpatient psychiatric facility in the United States. Rikers Island is the second-largest.

It shouldn’t require a task force to understand why. The vast incarceration of the mentally ill is a consequence of the 50-year-old policy of deinstitutionalization—the closing of state mental asylums and the reduction of hospital beds set aside for the mentally ill. Lacking both the medical resources and legal framework to care properly for the severely mentally ill, the community-based system meant to replace it was never equipped to give true “asylum” to those patients unable to cope in regular society. As a result, those most in need of help often wind up revolving among outpatient facilities, homeless shelters, and the streets. Arrest and prosecution offered the only remaining method of sequestering the violent and delusional and preventing them from harming themselves and others.

Unfortunately, early indications suggest that the city’s new task force could actually make things worse. Just as government planning failed to account for the catastrophe of deinstitutionalization, a new decriminalization initiative could lead to the mentally ill being pushed back into the subway system and the open-air asylums of Broadway and Central Park. This would represent a shameful return to the status quo of the early 1990s, before quality-of-life policing began under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Retrieved July 26, 2014 from

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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