"Treat us... don't beat us!!.."

root - Posted on 01 January 2000

Protestors shut down the Health Commission hearing over lack of mental health services for homeless San Franciscans

by Kaponda

Vibrations from raging thumps on the cold, smooth, glassy surface of the anterior of the Rose Hotel rattled in my ears. Expressive vibrations sent in earnest to rail against the refusal by the international community to recognize and respond to a growing phenomenon -- mental illness. I craned my neck to see the grim face and blustery mouth of a woman the hands of whom were strewing the entrance of the building with litter.

As another tenant of the recently renovated Rose, a tenderloin district Single Room Occupancy Hotel, used his card to access the building, the woman wriggled through the crevice like an escapee slithering through the portals of the gulag. The antics of the woman intensified in the waiting area of the building. A shrill zoomed through every keyhole in the building, unlocking the emotional vaults of the hearts and minds of its tenants. Before the woman had completely taken her hand off the fire alarm, it seemed as if every firefighter in San Francisco were in front of the Rose building. The police fastened the wrists of the woman with handcuffs and herded her to jail, where she was incarcerated for two days. While the members of the Fire Department displayed the confidence at the scene, the police were completely unprepared to handle a person displaying severe signs of mental illness.

The inexperience of police officers in recognizing people such as the woman at the Rose, whom I later interviewed and discovered goes by the name Staarr, arises in large part, out of a failure by the San Francisco Police Department to implement the Police Crisis Intervention, a carefully planned training program for police on how to respond to people with mental illnesses. In a telephone interview with the Director of Training for the San Francisco Police Department, Captain Daniel Lawson, I posed the obvious question, in asking why has the San Francisco Police Department neglected to use the Police Intervention Crisis, a project that had had the blessings of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in the amount of $180,000? "It is difficult to get officers off the street for 40 hours," stated Captain Lawson, referring to the curriculum developed by community members which would train one police officer on every shift at every precinct on how to respond to calls which were coded as "individuals acting bizarrely."

The sky above the Department of Public Health was garbed with two strati clouds, which gave not a scintilla of a threat of spoiling the action, "Hundreds 'Die-In' Protest Over Criminalization of Mental Illness," in which scores of health care providers, advocates and consumers gathered came to participate. Across the street on the grounds of Civic Center Plaza, between the Christmas tree on the thick green lawn and the single row of poinsettias in 10 cement encasements near City Hall, the crowd watched as a cast of people from the Coalition on Homelessness illustrated the fatal consequences which follow from a law enforcement community that is not able to determine the symptoms of mental illness at the scene of an incident. Training that would probably have determined that Staarr had been diagnosed with a bipolar affective disorder, according to information that she provided me, and people like Staarr whose mental illnesses are varied. They would have diverted Staarr, and others like her, from jails and prisons to treatment centers where they would have a reasonable chance to get help.

I caught up with one of the key players and intricate components of the rearguard action against the health care status-quo in San Francisco, Jennifer Friedenbach of the Coalition on Homelessness. I asked Jennifer, who heads the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Workgroup (SAMH), to speak to the response by Captain Lawson regarding the difficulty to get police officers off the streets for 40 hours, and the counterproposal by the Police Department of 20 hours. "Twenty hours are not enough. Other police departments around the country have been able to do it. This department is no different than the five or six other police departments around the country whose trainings are over 40 hours," stated Jennifer.

The moisture around her eyes was consumed by the warm rays from the bright sun that had scattered the two clouds above, as Tiny, co-editor of PNN, delivered a gut-wrenching piece written by the late Johnny Martinez, a victim of a lack of mental health treatment in San Francisco. In addition to her piece, poverty scholar and POOR staff writer Ken Moshesh, and the author of a newly released book titled, Black Disabled Man With a Big Mouth and a High IQ, Leroy Moore, Jr., illuminated the crowd with their spoken words of brilliance on that Tuesday, December 12, 2000.

The San Francisco Public Health Strategic Plan, "Leading the Way to a Healthier Community 2000," that was being heard by the San Francisco Health Commission on the third floor of the Department of Public Health, was abruptly preempted as the action moved from the Civic Center Plaza into the presence of the commissioners. A large delegation of community health care advocates, with Jennifer Friedenbach leading the way, marched into the room accompanied by a chant, entitled, "The Twelve Days of Christmas." After the 12th Day of Christmas was done, the quiet in the room on the third floor of the Department of Public Health was like the contentment produced by the salve of tranquillity.

"We demand Police Crisis Intervention, No Expansion of Forced Treatment, Protection of Human and Civil Rights of those Living on the Streets, and Consumer Directed Mental Health Treatment on Demand...." These demands were rattled off by a member of the Coalition on Homelessness as several members of the protestors abruptly fell to the floor of the commission.

I asked Jennifer Friedenbach what was the purpose of the intrusion? "We brought to them in a very forceful way a critical issue that they would hear, as they have previously refused to do. I think they did listen to us. I think we brought an issue that has been ignored about a community that is disenfranchised."

There is no doubt on my mind that each commissioner heard each word in the Four-Point Plan brought by the community on that day. I attempted to get a comment from Roma Guy, the President of the Commission, during the reading of the demands. She told me that she could not comment because "I am trying to listen to what they are saying."

. As the Project Coordinator of the Civil Rights Division of the Coalition on Homelessness, Mara Radar knew from extensive research that the claim; "Hundreds 'Die-In' Protest Over Criminalization of Mental Illness" was right. Therefore, she and her comrades sat defiantly on the floor before the commissioners in solidarity for cause. After the police had waited them out, a representative from the police asked Mara if they would leave or face the alternative? The response of Mara Raider was analogous to the grand finale of any venue of combat. "The reason that we are here is to lock them out of the [strategic planning] process."

Everyone in the room, including the commissioners, exited to the chant of "Shut It Down, Shut It Down, Shut It Down, Shut It Down, Shut It Down."

I asked Mara how she felt during those tense moments before the commissioners decided to acquiesce and table the process, especially faced with the possibility of being incarcerated? "We had a purpose there," stated Mara as she continued. "It was to stop them from meeting the way they had previously stopped us from being a part of their meetings. Our purpose was to make sure that this health department really is `responding to the needs of poor people. We were going to stay there as long as we needed to in order to get our message across."


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