Homelessness and More: An update
on the homelessness problem in Santa Paula

July 29, 2015

Kay Wilson-Bolton is a Chaplain and Director of SPIRIT of Santa Paula,a non-profit organization serving the most vulnerable and least powerful people in the community.

Our community is experiencing an alarming increase in crime from members of our homeless population. There are assaults and fearless attempts to rob and steal for their next beer or fix. Begging is on the rise. They are sleeping closer to town and pee and poop where they will.


We are at crisis stage. The level of violence among street people is leading to elevated police response and with heightened public scrutiny all around, this is a situation we must avoid.  In my view, the new level of violence is fueled by the lack of housing for people living on the street and from mental illness due to drug and alcohol abuse. 

A mental disorder or mental illness is a mental or behavioral pattern that causes either suffering or a poor ability to function in ordinary life. As our culture progresses, disorders becomes more numerous often, in my opinion, creating excuses for poor behavior. For example, in the latest version of the DSM V (Diagnostic and Statistical  Manual of Mental Disorders), doctors have labeled road rage as a disorder and given it a new name, “Intermittent Explosive Disorder” affecting up to 16 million Americans.

Since Christmas Eve 2008, when we found a homeless man dead in one of our churches, I have come to know many of our homeless people like family. We have fed them, counseled them, sheltered and housed them, buried several, visited them in jails and hospitals and cried with and over them. 

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) reports that there is a “definite connection between mental illness and the use of addictive substances”.  Mental health disorder patients are responsible for the consumption of 38 percent of the alcohol, 44 percent of the cocaine and 40 percent of all cigarettes.  People who have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder are responsible for the consumption of 69 percent of alcohol, 84 percent of cocaine, and 68 percent of cigarettes.

There’s a connection between substance abuse and mental health disorders, and any number of combinations can develop.

A necessary component of treatment is housing of some kind to get them off the street and manage their recovery. A nexus is needed for those who have moved to Methadone treatment so there is an automatic plan to taper down the doses. 

I make no excuses for my homeless people, and I am an advocate for their care and restoration.  There isn’t one of us who hasn’t made a bad choice in our lives. Fortunately not all bad choices led to others or did permanent damage. There are many from all walks of life who daily make the ultimate devastating choices, for whatever reasons, to drink excessively and use drugs.

A recent public statement was, “homeless people are criminals.” Not all are and certainly not all criminals are homeless. The reality is that many suffer from mental illness because of their addictions impairing their decision-making process. This can lead to homelessness and compound criminal activity. 

Economic homelessness can be solved and there are success stories everywhere. The subset of that is homelessness stemming from the impact of mental illness, whatever the cause. It is hard to solve and requires new strategies. 

The criminal activity of homeless people ranges from petty theft to armed robbery, intimidation of bystanders, compromised uses of public facilities and tremendous waste of taxpayer dollars on many levels. This includes the awarding of social security dollars to many who have self-inflicted health issues and the expensive cost of medical treatments in our urgent care facilities and ER’s. 

One young man pretends to throw himself in front of cars and yells at pedestrians about fighter jets. A young homeless woman on meth gave birth recently to a baby who was taken by CPS. The mother is coming undone and believes in a conspiracy between the police and hospital staff. 

The treatment of homeless people who are mentally ill must include housing. Neither problem can be solved without the ultimate collaboration of Mental Health Services and housing providers.  Here’s how it goes. 

Give someone a shower, clean clothes, a meal, a bed and a case manager. Housing makes homelessness easier to solve than to manage. A famous case study was reported in The New Yorker, February 13, 2006. It is titled “Million-Dollar Murray”.  The study claims that a small number of chronic homeless people cause a large drain on social services. It also shows it is less expensive to house them than it is to chase them.  I don’t mean place them into an apartment and give them the keys.  A treatment program, structure, counseling, and case management 24 hours a day, 7 days a week is required. 

In one specific 18-hour period in Santa Paula in May, one homeless woman was transported by police, fire and ambulance three times and treated in the emergency rooms of two County Hospitals. She is an addict and has transitioned to Methadone. She received extraordinary treatment in the hospital for almost three weeks for her chronic illnesses. When she was almost well she was discharged with nowhere to go but the streets. She misses follow-up appointments, loses her prescriptions, and can’t keep her sores clean. She is nearly back where she started.  The cost to taxpayers is hundreds of thousands of dollars. Imagine the cost over the last 25 years of her homelessness. 

We need people on street who are the warm fire that draws them in. Partners and response teams need to be trained professionals who know who to call and where to go when someone is ready for sobriety. Clinicians need to be on scene--not in an office hoping someone drops in. 

Failure to provide the team power at the entry level has brought us to the hard task we face now. Bits and pieces of good work are being done but there is a disconnect in some. One is that not all communities have the resources to deal with the problem. This is especially critical since the central winter shelter in Oxnard has been terminated for 2015. Unless a community provides one, homeless people will be on streets this winter--in all communities. This will elevate the need for police and fire services. 

The Mental Health Services family must convene a task force to address the specific issues that communities face within the homeless population fueled by drug and alcohol addictions and develop pro-active strategies that include housing.  They must also bring trained clinicians into our schools to deal with children facing suicide and depression. They need to help parents struggling with financial stresses and all the issues facing our culture. Santa Paula deserves financial and resource parity with every other community. 

No entity is better equipped or informed than this County’s Behavioral Health system. The approach needs to be radical to achieve radical and positive outcomes. The goal is to solve a problem that affects the whole community—business owners, children, public safety and relieve the taxpayers who are funding millions annually to treat and transport.  We need to treat the whole person. 

When there is both a mental health disorder and a substance abuse issue, it is important that the patient enroll in a treatment program that addresses both problems at the same time. The untreated symptoms of a mental health disorder can cause the patient to be unable to remain clean and sober, and untreated substance abuse issues can make mental health treatment ineffective. 

I often feel crushed with the weight of human need from our homeless people. The need now is the heavy artillery and chariots of trained professionals who will work until it’s done.  It won’t take long--just money and talent and commitment. 

I have wondered why love isn’t enough. Why isn’t the family tie or the memories of affection, security, holidays, birthdays and graduations enough to motivate an addict to and seek sobriety? Why do they love the drug more than the people who love them most. 

I have wondered that since our own daughter, Kathy, died of a drug overdose in 2006. What would have made the difference in her last day, or in the days preceding that one? 

I pray the hope and encouragement I offer will make a life-changing difference in someone’s last day. I know that if I fail to try I will answer for it. 

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