Editorials

An all-too common dereliction

Michael Lehmkuhl in a mug shot after he was arrested while homeless in Sacramento. A Sacramento State alum and building contractor, he began to hear voices when he was in his early 50s. He was shot and killed by a private security guard in January while camping near the river.
Michael Lehmkuhl in a mug shot after he was arrested while homeless in Sacramento. A Sacramento State alum and building contractor, he began to hear voices when he was in his early 50s. He was shot and killed by a private security guard in January while camping near the river.

Mike Lehmkuhl’s descent from businessman and homeowner into insanity, homelessness and death on a chilly January afternoon should shock us all.

Lehmkuhl’s friends and family tried for years to intervene. But Sacramento’s law enforcement and mental health care workers failed to take the steps that might have brought him in from the cold. It’s an all-too-common dereliction.

As told by The Sacramento Bee’s Cynthia Hubert, Lehmkuhl’s friends visited his home one day to find “crucifixes and religious figurines smashed across the floor. Books burned and scattered. Steak knives thrust into walls that were smeared with feces.”

His water came from a garden hose and his electricity came from an extension cord plugged in at a neighbor's house. Mental health care workers did hold him for a short time, but released him with little if any follow-up care.

Between 2012 and 2015, Sacramento County sheriff’s deputies were called to his Arden Arcade home at least 25 times because of his erratic behavior.

Deputies never found cause to deliver him to mental health care workers, concluding that he was not a danger to himself or others, the standard set by Welfare and Institutions Code 5150. Deputies did, however, take action in 2015 when they evicted him from his home for failing to make mortgage payments. Money talked. The lender had its rights.

Lehmkuhl shuffled off to the streets, and ultimately to the American River Parkway, a few miles from the Capitol, and a few blocks from the Sacramento police officers’ union hall. He was camping there on Jan. 9, when he picked up a tree branch and charged a private security guard, who shot and killed him.

Law enforcement officers and mental health case workers generally don’t intervene if seriously mentally ill people refuse help, until they commit a crime. During his months of homelessness, Lehmkuhl was arrested for minor violations. However, judges and Sacramento County jailers released him back to the streets, without insisting that he receive care.

Legislators this year earmarked $2 billion to build housing for chronically homeless people who have mental illness. The money is expected to produce at least 20,000 units. That will help some people. But the money will be ill-spent if there aren’t aggressive efforts to shelter people who, like Lehmkuhl, resist assistance.

Assembly Bill 2262 by Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-Greenbrae, would give judges more flexibility when sentencing mentally ill defendants. The bill has stalled, but lawmakers should return to the topic in 2017.

Another measure, AB 1300 by Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, D-Los Angeles, would expand the power of emergency room physicians to issue 5150 holds. It’s not clear that issues raised by his bill are fully resolved.

Emergency rooms have become de facto psychiatric wards, though many hospitals are not equipped to handle mentally ill patients. The California Hospital Association backs the bill, and the patient advocacy group, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, fears hospitals want to shed a difficult patient population.

For now, there is a shortage of crisis beds. Sen. John Moorlach, an Orange County Republican, said that in his county of 3 million people, there are 10 crisis beds. In part because of Moorlach’s Senate Bill 1273, the state has announced that it will divert some revenue from Proposition 63 – the 2004 initiative that raised taxes to fund mental health care – to add crisis beds.

That will help some people, though not people who are the toughest to reach. They will remain out in the cold until authorities take a more assertive approach, and insist that they accept care. Until that happens, we will be shocked when people like Mike Lehmkuhl die. Or maybe inured.

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