Yesterday 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