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Lost, Then Found

On a corner in downtown Los Angeles, a man sprawls unconscious, genitals exposed, one shoe on the sidewalk beside a foot covered with oozing sores. Blood and spit gurgle in his open mouth. A man in a fruit company uniform walks by, unmoved. Speaking in Spanish and gesturing, he makes it clear that he sees no point in calling paramedics: There are too many of these people--drunk or on drugs or crazy. “ Perdido ,” he says. Lost.

As it happens, just around the corner, in the middle of San Julian Street, paramedics from Los Angeles City Fire Station No. 9 are already pounding another overdosed man’s bare chest. A few feet away, a hot dog cart blares music and at least 85 people, many with wild, unfocused eyes, mill about watching, yakking, even dancing. A man slumped with several others against a graffiti-splattered wall lets out a slurred shout: “Let him go to heaven.”

As late as the 1960s, people with mental illness and addictions were tossed into institutions with little concern for their civil liberties. Today many such people wander the streets. This is no more humane. It’s time to help those who cannot act in their own best interests to move from the urban and suburban sidewalks and parks and into treatment for their ailments. It is for the sake of the sick, and also because the costs to taxpayers and civic pride are simply not acceptable.

The firefighters and paramedics at Station No. 9 alone respond to about 70 calls a day, sometimes juggling as many as five simultaneous cases of drug or alcohol overdose amid the city’s skid row sidewalk encampments. One way to slowly stop this senseless and relentless rescue operation is to put more teams of specialist public servants on the streets to ease people with mental illnesses and addictions off.

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Craig McClelland and his partner, Suzanne Newberry, have been trained to do just that and to coax and cajole people from under bridges and out of the shrubbery caves they inhabit from East L.A. to the Westside.

Newberry is a nurse supplied by the county Department of Mental Health. McClellan is a deputy sheriff. The partners are one of the mental evaluation teams put together by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in what Newberry calls “the joining of totally foreign agencies--public health and law enforcement.” The Sheriff’s Department and the Los Angeles Police Department have between them a total of about 30 such teams.

Dressed in civilian clothing, McClellan and Newberry drive their unmarked Crown Victoria through some of the county’s least desirable real estate. McClelland summarizes the team’s mission: “We try to find real solutions, long-term solutions, not just a quick fix.”

To see how this works, walk with the partners into a ragged enclave of weather-beaten blue tarps, tents and cardboard boxes in an industrial area just east of the Civic Center. As some inhabitants stare glumly from a cluster of old mattresses that reek of body odor and urine, a middle-aged man in a black gaucho-style hat steps out to greet them.

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The team’s approach is to lift up tent flaps and tuck in gallons of water that McClelland talks the Sparkletts company into donating and hand out canned goods contributed by his church in Huntington Beach. They talk to those who will listen, suggesting shelters, offering to make contact with drug treatment programs.

Then they move on to the next spot where people hang their clothes on razor-wired-topped chain link or sleep beside dumpsters overflowing with rotting trash.

Slowly, people get to know them. One afternoon “Black Hat” approached. “Can you help me?” he said. “There’s something wrong in my head.”

Newberry is a short, red-haired woman who spent 20 years working in psychiatric emergency rooms. McClelland is a veteran of 13 years with the Sheriff’s Department and an expert on substance abuse. When “Black Hat” bridled at the mention of going to a hospital, they knew how to quickly wrangle a psychiatrist and get him to the encampment to prescribe antipsychotic medication on the spot.

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This middle-aged man still lives on that sidewalk, but a fog has lifted from his mind. Earlier this month McClelland and Newberry persuaded him to go with them to tour a facility that could provide housing and long-term treatment. They’re hopeful he’ll soon join the 5,000 people statewide whom such teams have moved off the street and into some sort of treatment and housing. It certainly beats jail, where locking up a mentally ill person can cost up to $600 a night--about the price of a suite at the Four Seasons.

What Newberry and McClelland do takes compassion, toughness and persistence. More such teams are needed. The alternative can be seen in the emergency medical madness that unfolds 24 hours a day in Los Angeles, where the paramedics at Station No. 9 alone go through five cases of latex gloves a month as they pump the chests and patch the wounds of people who will live and die on skid row streets.

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Tuesday: How one street person’s death converted a cop.

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