Editorials

We’ve come to accept the unacceptable

Homeless, Genevieve Lucchesi died in February on the streets where she lived for two decades.
Homeless, Genevieve Lucchesi died in February on the streets where she lived for two decades. Photo courtesy of Marie and James Boyer

A twisted path led to Genevieve Lucchesi’s pathetic death at age 77 in a dirty blue sleeping bag in midtown Sacramento in February.

Genny’s story, meticulously reconstructed and told so powerfully by The Bee’s Cynthia Hubert last Sunday, says much about the soul of our city and society, and about the intersection of mental illness and homelessness.

Kind-hearted people of midtown offered her coffee, food and a few bucks, but didn’t have the ability or tools to persuade her to come indoors.

Operators of a Chevron station didn’t mind that she would sleep in one of the station’s handicapped parking spaces, and use their facilities to care for herself, more or less.

Well-meaning cops checked up on her, making sure she was safe, relatively. Social workers paid her occasional visits, but couldn’t persuade her to accept the simple gift of housing vouchers.

Mostly, Genny’s story is one of acceptance of sicknesses to which we have become inured. We have come to accept that it’s OK that severe mental illness is left untreated. We have talked ourselves into believing that people who suffer from it have the right to be ill. Genny didn’t bother anyone, so no one intervened on any serious level.

We tell ourselves that we are a compassionate and charitable people, and yet we have come to conclude that Genny and thousands of poor souls like her have the right to live in parking lots, under freeway underpasses and along riverbanks, and to die there. The Bee’s Erika D. Smith recently made that point by describing the wall at Loaves & Fishes where names are inscribed of homeless people who died on the streets.

Genny’s story is one of acceptance that it’s OK that severe mental illness is left untreated. We have talked ourselves into believing that people who suffer from it have the right to be ill.

As Genny’s story teaches, mental illness is complicated, and has its victims, as Genny’s children attest, through emotional scars they carried into adulthood.

Perhaps, some aspects of mental illness and homelessness could start to change for the better.

This coming week, an important congressional committee is expected to vote on legislation known as the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act. The legislation would help bring needed attention and money to the problem, and help ensure more people in need receive care. We urge Republican backers led by Rep. Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania to find common ground with Democrats, including Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento.

Last week, San Francisco joined counties that are implementing Laura’s Law, otherwise known as assisted outpatient treatment, in which judges direct severely mentally ill people who have been arrested or hospitalized repeatedly to undergo therapy. The individuals would receive housing and other supportive services in exchange.

The law was named for Laura Wilcox, a young woman who was murdered by a mentally ill man in Nevada County in 2001. The Legislature authorized counties to implement Laura’s Law programs in 2002, but until recently only Nevada County adopted it. Yolo, Orange and Los Angeles counties are among the counties that have adopted Laura’s Law.

Sacramento has developed a similar program, called Community Alternatives for Recovery and Engagement. The behavioral health division of the Sacramento County Department of Health and Human Services provided intensive care for 18 people, and documented significant reductions in hospitalization and incarceration. All 58 counties should enhance their treatment of severely mentally people; it doesn’t matter what they call it.

Housing will remain a problem, especially as land prices rise, and as downtown Sacramento develops. But perhaps immediate solutions aren’t overly complex.

Maybe cops who see people like Genny could make a point of reaching out to social workers. Maybe the county and city could establish a phone number, so well-meaning people who befriend folks like Genny could call for help from a social worker.

Maybe one social worker, skilled at reaching the hard to reach, would see that someone like Genny enjoys crossword puzzles, and spend a few hours a few days a week sitting and working on puzzles. Over time, perhaps the social worker could form a bond, and nudge such an individual into housing.

The alternative is to continue telling ourselves that mentally ill people are making rational choices, that they have right to remain on the streets, and that in 2015, it is OK that a 77-year-old woman dies in a sleeping bag on a street in midtown Sacramento.

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