The very term “homelessness,” as used to describe the problem that has changed the face of downtown Los Angeles and other West Coast cities, implies that there’s a single solution: housing. That thinking leads quickly to discussions about the high cost of real estate and the need for new approaches to the housing crisis, such as Facebook’s pledge to spend $1 billion to create affordable housing in Silicon Valley.
Too often, however, this discussion ignores the needs of a large percentage of people living on the streets who are not capable of living independently because they suffer from serious mental health problems. For some, the best form of help may be a back-to-the-future approach: state mental hospitals dedicated to serving this particular population. This would not solve the problem of people with mental illness who refuse shelter (that issue has to be addressed by involuntary commitment laws). But the fact is, there aren’t enough beds in existing facilities for the mentally ill who might need and want such services.
This is not to suggest a revival of the sprawling and often poorly run system of public mental hospitals, or asylums, that were once among the largest budget items of every state government. At their peak in the early 1950s, there were more than 500,000 state mental hospital beds in the United States, including 37,000 in California.
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