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Popeye and our mentally ill homeless population
dennis Wyatt web
Dennis Wyatt

I call him Popeye.

I have no idea who he is. I do know he is homeless. And based on my observations he is not all here.

Popeye carries a strong resemblance to the cartoon character of the same name based on his facial expressions and features and how he carries his compact body when he is advancing on you.

I say advancing because he gives you the distinct impression he wants to go mano-a-mano with you with the way he scowls and clenches his fists as he walks. Two of the times I have come across him he actually tried to pick a fight.

The first was two years ago when I was jogging. I was heading down the sidewalk in front of the Arco station passing him in the opposite direction when he suddenly lurched into me and forcefully made shoulder contact with my shoulder. It startled me. I looked over my left shoulder while continuing to the gym to make sure he wouldn't try something else. He stood there for a second smiling and then continued on his way.

The second time was in June. Again I was jogging. He was at a bus shelter. I kept an eye on him as I passed. The light was red so it stopped my progress.

As I turned around, Popeye was advancing toward me. He was wearing what looked like a trench coat. His fists were clenched and he was muttering very loud and menacingly. Thinking he could have a knife under his coat and remembering my last up close encounter with Popeye, I clenched my fists, scowled and started walking toward him. It's a very convincing look especially when you are wearing wrap-around Bolle sunglasses that some say were inspired by the Terminator. (I wear them because they are the only sunglasses that will accommodate my horrendous eye prescription.)

I know it may have been a tad confrontational but I was in no mood to simply stand there to see what he was going to do next. After I took about five steps toward him, he did an about face and walked off. The light changed and I was on my way.

I haven't seen Popeye for about seven months
Popeye is not the only homeless person that I come across whose actions lead me to think they are mentally ill. But it doesn't matter what I think - or even what law enforcement officers think. Someone who appears to be unstable has to be a clear threat to themselves or others before they can be detained for even an observation. The shoulder bump may or may not have qualified.

It is true the mentally ill do fill a large portion of the homeless population. Some are mentally ill without the help of self-medication from alcohol, meth, and such. Others use the proceeds of panhandling given non-profits and such take care of their food needs so they can buy drugs and booze to inch closer every day to mental illness.

Discuss this with some advocates for the homeless and they will start ranting about Ronald Reagan "emptying" California's mental hospitals 50 years ago when he was governor.

News flash. That was 50 years ago. The homeless are on the streets in many cases not because there is a dearth of metal health services as much as the laws and courts have set much higher bars for non-voluntary "commitment" to programs or institutions. That's bad and good since it was clear the ability to lock up a person for "mental illness" on a non-voluntary basis was being abused.

The reason why the homeless that are truly mentally ill are on the streets today has nothing to do with Reagan as it does with how we respond as a society.

If we demanded legislators to come up with laws that pass constitutional muster with the courts to allow involuntary "commitment" to programs up to a set period of time, perhaps the homeless issue can be eased. The danger, of course, is whatever standard that might be applies to everyone regardless if they are on the street. Not only would uneven treatment give the ACLU a field day the entire premise by itself could. And to be honest, I'd probably agree with them. Having an agent of the government whether it is an officer or a health worker go beyond the current tests that are often as simple as answering questions about the day of the week, who is president, and such when people you and I think are off kilter but then become lucid when put to the test is a slippery slope.

And remember that slippery slope isn't reserved just for the homeless.

Perhaps instead of using Reagan as an excuse, maybe there needs to be a grassroots effort to develop and secure passage of a litmus test that may be a tad more liberal than the standard today in a bid to try and get help for people who are mentally ill.

But if what we have in place is the best we can do then we need to come to the realization that mentally ill homeless is the price we are paying so the government - or people using the government - don't have broad powers to hold people and/or commit them involuntarily on the basis of them being "mentally ill."

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.