CAG holds panel to raise awareness on homelessness in Georgetown

homelessnessYesterday evening, a panel organized by the Citizens Association of Georgetown convened at the Grace Episcopal Church in order to raise awareness about the homelessness problem prevalent within the Georgetown community as well as the greater DC area. The panel consisted of three men: Brian Stettin, Policy Director of the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, V.A., Dr. Ron Koshes, Psychiatrist, and Gunther Stern, Executive Director of the Georgetown Ministry Center.

The panelists argued that the problem of homelessness can only be solved by addressing one of its most predominant causes: mental illness. Although soup kitchens and homeless shelters provide a safe haven for many members of the homeless community, these places only deal with the symptoms, and not the root, of the problem. According to a national estimate, about 40 to 45 percent of homeless people in the United States suffer from some form of mental disorder.

While many homeless men and women are often stereotyped as coming from extremely disadvantaged backgrounds, this is not always the case. Consider the life of Tom Bockoven. He was born into a loving, middle-class family and grew up as a friendly and popular young man.

However, Bockoven was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at the age of 20 and despite his privileged background, he has been homeless for over 25 years and has travelled thousands of miles across Canada and the United States on foot. When Bockoven finally decided to return home one day, he simply told his family, “I lost my compass.”

Bockoven is just one of thousands of homeless men and women who live on the streets not because of financial circumstances but because of mental illness. However, the panel stressed that getting these people the help they need is no easy task, especially since the law is such a major obstacle.

“The Ervin Act,” created in the 1960s to combat the forced mental institutionalization of civilians for social and political reasons, endows all homeless people, with or without mental disorders, with the right to live on the street as long as they do not exhibit violent, suicidal, or self-harming behavior. In other words, no matter how desperately these individuals may need medical or psychiatric aid, the law prevents doctors, police officers, and other concerned community members from intervening without legitimate proof of violent or self-harming behavior. “It’s just unbelievable that we allow people who are guided by delusions and hallucinations to make decisions for themselves and live on the street,” said Stern.

Stern mentioned an incident in which he “got lucky.” One freezing winter afternoon, he was desperately trying to usher an inadequately clothed homeless woman into the church to prevent her from freezing, but she refused to cooperate. In the end, however, Stern was able to force her inside because she mentioned that the reason why she didn’t need any additional clothing or shelter was because she believed that the CIA had installed heating chips in her body, proving that her mental state was life-threatening and hindered her rational thought processes.

So how should this problem be fixed? Well, the panelists proposed that the current definition of “self-injury” in the Ervin Act should be expanded to mean more than just mortal danger, but also failure to meet basic needs, such as food, clothing, and shelter. “The common law in the District [of Columbia] has been interpreted too narrowly with tragic consequences,” Stettin said.

[Editor’s note: A previous version of this post contained some factual errors. The act is not called “The Urban Act” but the “Ervin Act.”]

Photos by Rio Djiwandana

4 Comments on “CAG holds panel to raise awareness on homelessness in Georgetown

  1. Rio, much as I appreciate your covering this event, I must point out the need for a few corrections to your post.

    The 1960’s law I discussed is known as “the Ervin Act,” not “the Urban Act.” The Ervin Act does not “endow people with the right to live out on the street.” The law does not deal with homelessness at all. Rather, the Ervin Act establishes a procedure for civil commitment of people with with mental illness — homeless or not — under certain circumstances.

    It is also important to note — as I stressed at the forum — that DC courts have repeatedly held that the Ervin Act ALREADY authorizes the commitment of mentally ill people who cannot meet their basic survival needs. I called for amendment of the law not to EXPAND its current meaning, but to CLARIFY its current meaning for practitioners and police officers who appear to be unaware of these court rulings, and apply the law as if it required proof of imminent risk of violence or suicide. To that end, I said that “the CIVIL COMMITMENT law” (not “the common law”) in the District has been interpreted too narrowly.

    Finally, I think it’s more than a little unfair of you to say that “the panelists were unable to devise a solution to help the 50-55% of homeless people [sic] who are not suffering from any form of mental illness.” The topic of the forum was the link between homelessness and severe mental illness. I am a mental health legal advocate, and Ron Koshes is a psychiatrist. Neither of us claim to have any special knowledge on other segments of the homeless population. While sitting on a stage and offering ourselves as experts, we had about as much right to opine on that question as we had on the question of how to stop Iran’s nuclear program.

  2. The program was both informative and timely. Several board and staff members of Woodley House, Inc., were pleased to attend and to support the laudable efforts of CAG and Georgetown Ministries in shining a light on the plight of both the homeless and the mentally ill. For over 50 years Woodley House has provided housing and support services to those recovering from various stages of mental illness, with the goal of allowing them to return to independent and productive lives. A 501(c)(3) non-profit organization serving some of our area’s most needy citizens, Woodley House is the oldest licensed such facility in Washington (www.woodleyhouse.org) and is nationally recognized for its unique community-based residential care recovery approach. We thank CAG for the excellent program and look forward to upcoming alliance efforts with Georgetown Ministries in support of our respective missions.
    Leslie Fitch, Secretary and Board Member of Woodley House and member of CAG

  3. It’s good to see that people are trying to deal with the root causes of homelessness. Another great organization in DC is SOME, by the way. http://www.some.org

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