Driving east on Hollywood Blvd two days ago, as my car was stopped at Vine, there was a young man hugging the wayfinding sign. He was barefoot and clothed only in plaid flannel pajama bottoms. His hair and beard, though not groomed, did not look particularly unkempt which made me think he had recently wandered away from some place.
My first thought was that there was a mother somewhere who was worried about him. A mother who was likely feeling helpless in her inability to prevent her son from ending up barefoot and half naked at the corner of Hollywood and Vine.
I am currently reading the book Tomorrow Was Yesterday, compiled by Dede Ranahan. It’s hard to read; I can only take a few pages at a time without feeling enormously sad. More than 60 stories are shared by mothers who have faced grief, loss, frustration, pain and tragedy as their sons and daughters confronted the American mental health system. None of the stories, so far, have a happy ending.
That young man at the corner of Hollywood and Vine is not experiencing homelessness. He is experiencing something far more tragic and ultimately life-threatening.
Housing is the easy answer
Everywhere you look, elected officials, policy makers, advocates and even good ol’ Judge Carter is calling for more housing to address our homeless crisis. Yes, housing is critical but it is not the only solution.
The elephant under the rug is the lack of sustained and recovery-oriented inpatient treatment for people living with severe mental illness in our communities – all across America.
How people find their way to living on the street, in a tent, or in their car is complicated. Yes, housing costs are rising and wages are not keeping pace and the pandemic has exacerbated an already troubling situation in Los Angeles.
But there is a significant percentage of people experiencing homelessness, who have battled mental illness, or substance abuse, or both, who need attention above and beyond a room key. How many? One in four, is the conservative number as reported by LAHSA using the federal HUD definition.
If you have followed this blog, you will see that I have written about people with mental health conditions who have emerged from jail without a place to live. Your heart will break as you read about a mother driving around the city looking for her daughter suffering from bi-polar. In my podcast, you’ll hear from two resilient mothers who have made a case that California lacks access to residential treatment options where people struggling with their mental illness can live and receive sustained and tailored treatment, for as long as it takes to stabilize and begin recovery.
The young man hugging the wayfinding sign will not start his recovery journey in a shelter, or bridge housing or in his own apartment. Maybe later; but not now.
I so appreciate the people who read this blog and ask: “how can I help?”
Here is something you can do. We have to shift the narrative away from the response that housing is the singular solution to homelessness and turn up the heat on the need for sustained and effective inpatient treatment for mental illness and substance use disorder.
Let’s put on our fifth grade hat to understand the “IMD Exclusion”
Truth be told, researching and writing this blog has helped me collect my thoughts on a federal policy that is very confusing but incredibly impactful as it relates to our homeless crisis. My goal is to make this accessible to lay people – so that you, and me – can keep asking the question: “do we have enough psychiatric treatment beds to meet the needs in our community?”
The answer is no. Here is one extremely detailed report from the L.A. County Department of Mental Health that attests to this.
Here is one solution. We need to ask our county, state and federal policymakers to eliminate the IMD Exclusion.
Ugh. What the heck is that? It sounds like a variant to the coronavirus. How can I ask for something I don’t even understand?
The United States now has fewer state psychiatric treatment beds per capita than any other time in our nation’s history, according to a 2016 report by the Treatment Advocacy Center.
One reason relates to the federal government’s policy that Medicaid (insurance for very low-income people) cannot be used to pay the expenses of someone living in a treatment facility that has more than 16 beds. These are referred to as Institutes for Mental Disease (IMD). The >16 facility would be “an institution” although it’s hard to understand why 16 is the magic number.
How did we get here?
- There was great hope in the 1960’s after President Kennedy signed into law the Community Mental Health Act. The hope was to shift resources from large institutions into community-based treatment. This movement was not limited to the U.S. As I have written about extensively in this blog, this was happening in Italy as well, and Trieste represents the “north star” in looking at how the commitment to community-based support truly led to a qualitative improvement in the quality of life for their neighbors living with a mental illness.
- During that decade alone, over 165,000 people were discharged from psychiatric institutions, but the community-based resources did not materialize in such a way as to absorb this influx. (See American Psychosis, an excellent reference book, page 71.)
- How this shift from the federal to state and local governments was going to be funded was at issue (and still is, to be frank).
- One development during that decade that has had far-reaching consequences was the change to the Social Security Act.
- Under President Johnson, Medicare and Medicaid were created as part of a revision to the Act. Medicare provides hospital insurance for people 65+ and is funded by the federal government. The intent of Medicaid was to pay for medical care for poor people and is funded by a combination of the federal and state governments. Neither was intended to serve as a funding source for mentally ill people. The expectation was that the states would provide care for their mentally ill residents.
- However, because states were caring for so many people in their state hospitals, the federal government wanted to make sure that the financial burden would remain with the states.
- To protect against this this, the Medicaid rules stipulated that funds could not be used for people in mental institutions. This became the Institutions for Mental Disease (IMD) exclusion. Somehow, they arrived at the threshold of 16 beds constituting an institution.
There seems to be a growing awareness that repealing the IMD Exclusion, or making it easier for states to secure a waiver, is a policy worth pursuing to provide a higher level of care for people living with a mental illness in our country. In this blog, I am raising this issue to equip my readers to learn more, and engage policy makers in discussion. This is how we pursue change.
Just this week, a comprehensive report from the Manhattan Institute was issued, Medicaid’s IMD Exclusion: The Case for Repeal. It is a good read, and goes into much greater depth than this simple blog.
So, arm yourself with this knowledge. Keep asking the questions. Impress upon our policy makers that our humanitarian crisis of homelessness is far more complicated than a shortage of affordable housing. Stay tuned to this space.
Just today (2/26/21), Pete Earley has blogged about the significance of the Manhattan Institute report. This adds to the chorus of well-respected voices to take this policy change seriously. Another worthy read.