The Left continues to paint a false narrative regarding the surging homeless population here in Los Angeles, insisting it’s some nefarious result of conservatism gone awry. They argue measures that harken back to President Reagan’s two terms as governor of California, and later as our president, remain the driving factors for the current crisis. A 2013 hit piece for Salon drives this point home with various unsubstantiated claims masquerading as facts as well as patently ridiculous assertions regarding the role of deinstitutionalization and mental illness. Here’s just one particular gem:
President Reagan never understood mental illness. … he was a product of the Southern California culture that associated psychiatry with Communism.
In fact, the move to deinstitutionalize hundreds of thousands of mentally ill was driven almost entirely by the outcry against just how cruel and inhumane many mental institutions had become for the better part of the twentieth century. Novels and films such as One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest only fueled the outrage. The very fictitious Arkham Asylum is said to be modeled after the very real Danvers State Mental Hospital in Massachusetts. Many mental institutions had become veritable prisons for the mentally ill. Even now the very notion of an asylum conjures up images of forced lobotomies and straightjackets for most of us.
Lanterman-Petris-Short Act of 1967
A particular claim the Left bandies about is that Reagan signing the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act in 1967 as governor of California left countless mentally ill abandoned to the streets. They insist that somehow this very bipartisan act is the epicenter for the homelessness explosion some decades ago, particularly here in California. This is patently false.
First and foremost, deinstitutionalization began in the 1950s with the introduction of Thorazine. It was hoped that the drug would prevent many from being institutionalized for their mental illness. According to PBS’s Frontline:
Deinstitutionalization began in 1955 with the widespread introduction of chlorpromazine, commonly known as Thorazine, the first effective antipsychotic medication, and received a major impetus 10 years later with the enactment of federal Medicaid and Medicare.
Secondly, the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act is often viewed as a progenitor for a patient’s bill of rights. Then-governor Reagan’s intentions were to safeguard and protect the rights of Americans institutionalized against their will for indefinite periods of time. The impetus behind deinstitutionalization was far more a civil rights issue and much less a budgetary one. To argue otherwise is just dishonest.
O’Connor vs. Donaldson
If any ruling had a seismic effect on the status of the mentally ill and homelessness in America, it was O’Connor vs. Donaldson. The landmark Supreme Court ruling in 1975 was the final nail in the coffin for involuntary holds in mental institutions all across America. Individuals who were not a threat to themselves or to others alongside the nebulous proviso of being able to reasonably survive on their own could no longer be held against their will. This particular ruling, more than anything else, contributed to the nationwide surge of the mentally ill among the homeless population.
The Mental Health Systems Act of 1980
President Carter’s attempt to address the burgeoning mental health crisis with The Mental Health Systems Act of 1980 proved an ill-advised piece of bureaucratic bloat. The law was based on the earlier findings from the Presidential Commission on Mental Health. However, the findings from this commission were, at best, vague if not misleading. The intentions may have been sound but the approach and execution proved inadequate.
The subsequent legislation that President Carter drew up was simply an incredibly expensive bit of dressing on a very deep wound. President Reagan had little to no choice upon being elected to repeal the law. Perhaps an unpopular decision, but a necessary one to help set aright the economy considering the recession he’d just inherited from his predecessor.
Homelessness and deinstitutionalization remain a complex issue with no easy answers at the ready. The Left is convinced as always that throwing money at the problem will somehow magically make it go away. They also readily disregard the vital role civil rights played in deinstitutionalization across America. It’s supremely ironic never mind frightening that the Left seems to demand that we harken back to a darker time when the mentally ill were simply locked away and forgotten.