No home, mentally ill: California case shows system’s flaws

Aug 7, 2021, 8:45 AM | Updated: Aug 8, 2021, 9:00 pm

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — The big brother Suzette Chaumette remembers was witty and kind, an aspiring historian at the University of California, Berkeley whose promise was derailed by mental illness. Over the decades, he struggled with bipolar disorder, cycling in and out of hospitals and halfway homes and into homelessness.

In June, she saw him on the local news, lying on the ground and under arrest for allegedly throwing a water bottle at California Gov. Gavin Newsom. Authorities called the 54-year-old man “aggressive.” It was the first time she had seen him in years.

“I never thought he would be that guy, but he is that guy,” she said, crying. “He’s not a bad guy. He’s got great intentions and really would take the help if he was in the right place.”

In California, a quarter of the 161,000 people experiencing homelessness also have a severe mental illness. An estimated 37,000 people pinball between nonprofits and public agencies, cycling through ERs, jails and the streets, sometimes for decades, with no one monitoring their overall care in a fractured system that nobody entirely knows how to fix.

There aren’t enough places for people like Suzette’s brother, Serge Chaumette, who likely require long-term clinical care, says Paul C. Webster, director of Hope Street Coalition. People with brain disorders need a range of living situations where they can “step down” from oversight as they improve.

But government reimbursement for that kind of care is low to nonexistent, he says. Medicaid, for example, will not pay for treatment in “institutions for mental disease” that have more than 16 beds.

“The public just doesn’t know. They’re mad about all the encampments and people on the streets because they don’t understand what it takes to deal with this other than to clear them out,” said Margot Dashiell, vice president of the East Bay chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Meanwhile, families suffer quietly. Suzette Chaumette debated talking to The Associated Press about a private pain that spilled into public view only after a chance encounter with the state’s top elected official.

“Mental health is a family issue,” she said. “It does not live in isolation.”

The June encounter between the governor and Chaumette was brief.

Newsom, 53, was in downtown Oakland to promote small businesses when he was “approached by an aggressive individual,” said Fran Clader, spokeswoman for the California Highway Patrol, which provides security for the governor. Newsom appeared unharmed and joked about the incident.

Chaumette was booked into jail and released within a day. He has no cellphone, and his family did not know where he was.

He didn’t appear at arraignment hearings the following month in a separate case in which he allegedly spat at an officer in March while being taken to a county-run psychiatric hospital on an involuntary hold.

On Friday, Alameda County deputy public defender Jeff Chorney said Chaumette is receiving care for his illness and that all charges should be dropped.

“We cannot continue to treat people with mental health issues by locking them in a cage,” he said in a statement.

Governments at all levels have been disinvesting in mental health for decades. John F. Kennedy wanted to replace state asylums with federal community clinics, but the transition never happened. States started shedding psychiatric beds, and those that are available are increasingly reserved for criminal defendants, the Treatment Advocacy Center in Virginia reported.

No state meets the gold standard in care, but some cities have innovative programs, said Elizabeth Sinclair Hancq, the center’s research director. New York City has a pioneering mental health clubhouse that addresses social isolation, while Tucson, Arizona, uses a robust crisis center model to connect people to services and bypass jail.

Acknowledging such shortcomings, Newsom signed a $12 billion spending plan this year dedicated to homelessness, including converting motel rooms for housing and enhancing facilities for people with addiction and mental illness. More than a quarter of the country’s estimated 580,000 unhoused residents live in California.

“We’ve got to take accountability, responsibility to do more and do better, and that’s what this budget intends to do,” said Newsom, a Democrat.

Mental health experts say the U.S. needs more of everything: in-patient beds, out-patient treatment and longer-term housing. Yet that can seem fantastical with public health underfunded, social workers overwhelmed and housing prices out of reach, especially in the prohibitively expensive San Francisco Bay Area.

Teresa Pasquini is a former Contra Costa County mental health commissioner who has documented her family’s struggle to get help for her son, who has schizoaffective disorder. She wondered about the man accused of hurling a bottle at the governor.

“Moms like me kind of go, ‘Is that one of ours? It sounds like it is,'” she said. “There’s nowhere for them to go and so they’re being failed and jailed continuously, and it’s a humanitarian crisis that nobody’s talking about.”

Chaumette grew up in Oakland, the only son of accountants who fled political unrest in Haiti when he was a baby. Like many immigrants, his parents worked hard to give him and his sisters a better life: Catholic schooling, music lessons and a comfortable home where the family conversed in French.

Bipolar disorder causes dramatic changes in thinking and behavior. He had his first manic episode in his early 20s, cutting up clothes and smearing car oil inside the house, his sister said.

“That’s when my mom and my sisters and I looked at each other and said, ‘This isn’t normal,'” she said.

It took a long time to get the correct diagnosis, and while her brother had periods of stability, it never lasted. He bounced around agencies, the people tasked with his care did not communicate or left, and there was little consistency, his sister said. Records show he tried to continue his education at UC Berkeley, where he was enrolled off and on from 1987 to 2003.

The last time the siblings hung out regularly was when he lived in a dilapidated Oakland halfway house. But the building burned in 2017, killing four people. Chaumette was among those who became homeless in a city where the average monthly rent for an apartment is $2,700.

“The public’s perception is often that the family threw the individual out, or the family doesn’t care, but very often that’s not the case,” said Sinclair Hancq, the research director. “The family has tried.”

In Alameda County, where Chaumette was arrested, a Mental Health Advisory Board is calling for more housing, licensed beds and coordination. Board Chair Lee Davis, who also has bipolar disorder, says she’s lucky she responds to medication and can maintain a home and job.

But living with the disorder also can mean repeatedly screaming a racial slur to rid it from the universe, thinking her cats’ napping will make up for her lack of sleep, or smashing a window because the “inside and outside needed to merge.”

Mania shouldn’t be criminalized, she says. “Why is there no number to call to report a mental health crisis?”

Chaumette has been in and out of the criminal justice system for decades, largely for misdemeanors that resulted in probation. It’s unclear what kind of help he may have received through the courts, as health records are confidential and off-limits even to family.

Suzette Chaumette is skeptical of promises by politicians.

“His life is so much more than the mental illness that has gripped him his whole life,” she said, adding she wants people to “see him as a human being, not just a case — that he’s really given a chance at life.”

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

FILE - Police stand near toppled chairs lining W. Main St. in downtown Waukesha, Wis., after an SUV...
Associated Press

Defendant to represent himself in Wisconsin parade trial

Darrell Brooks’ trial was never going to be easy for the Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha. Now it could hurt even more. Brooks plowed through the city’s Christmas parade in his Ford Escape last year, killing six people and injuring dozens more, prosecutors allege. His trial opens Monday with jury selection and is expected to last […]
8 hours ago
Pastor Bart Barber, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, preaches from the pulpit of the F...
Associated Press

Amid crises, rural roots anchor Southern Baptists’ president

FARMERSVILLE, Texas (AP) — A sweating Bart Barber trekked across a pasture in search of Bully Graham, the would-be patriarch of the rural pastor’s fledgling cattle herd. With the temperature in the mid-90s, the 52-year-old Texan found the bull — whose nickname reflects his owner’s affection for the late Rev. Billy Graham — and 11 […]
8 hours ago
Pastor Bart Barber, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, preaches from the pulpit of the F...
Associated Press

Amid crises, rural roots anchor Southern Baptists’ president

FARMERSVILLE, Texas (AP) — On the first Saturday of fall, a sweating Bart Barber trekked across a weedy pasture in search of Bully Graham, the would-be patriarch of the rural Baptist pastor’s fledgling cattle herd. With the afternoon temperature in the mid-90s, the 52-year-old Texan found the bull — whose nickname reflects his owner’s deep […]
8 hours ago
Associated Press

Germany, Denmark, Norway to deliver 16 howitzers to Ukraine

BERLIN (AP) — German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht on Sunday announced the delivery of 16 wheeled armored howitzers produced in Slovakia to Ukraine next year. The Zuzana systems would be produced in Slovakia and financed jointly with Denmark, Norway and Germany, the German minister told public broadcaster ARD after returning from her first trip to […]
8 hours ago
FILE - President Joe Biden drives a Cadillac Lyriq through the showroom during a tour at the Detroi...
Associated Press

Biden pledge to make federal fleet electric faces slow start

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden, a self-described “car guy,” often promises to lead by example by moving swiftly to convert the sprawling U.S. government fleet to zero-emission electric vehicles. But efforts have lagged in helping meet his ambitious climate goals by eliminating gas-powered vehicles from the federal fleet. Biden last year directed the U.S. […]
8 hours ago
FILE - Accused serial killer Billy Chemirmir looks back during his retrial on April 25, 2022, at Fr...
Associated Press

Man accused of killing 22 older women goes on trial again

DALLAS (AP) — After Mary Brooks was found dead on the floor of her Dallas-area condo, grocery bags from a shopping trip still on her countertop, authorities decided the 87-year-old had died of natural causes. Even after her family discovered jewelry was missing — including a coral necklace she loved and diamond rings — it […]
8 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...
Quantum Fiber

How high-speed fiber internet can improve everyday life

Quantum Fiber supplies unlimited data with speeds up to 940 mbps, enough to share 4K videos with coworkers 20 times faster than a cable.
...
Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Ways to prevent clogged drains and what to do if you’re too late

While there are a variety of ways to prevent clogged drains, it's equally as important to know what to do when you're already too late.
...
Mayo Clinic Orthopedics and Sports Medicine

Why your student-athlete’s physical should be conducted by a sports medicine specialist

Dr. Anastasi from Mayo Clinic Orthopedics and Sports Medicine in Tempe answers some of the most common questions.
No home, mentally ill: California case shows system’s flaws