Is Helping the Homeless a Crime?

Is Helping the Homeless a Crime?

arnold abbottThe Bible tells us to love thy neighbor. Even if you don’t subscribe to a particular religious belief, most people have a basic need to help others.

Arnold Abbott has spent the last 23 years of his life doing just that. He runs an organization called “Love Thy Neighbor Fund”, which feeds the hungry in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. The organization was created in the memory of his late wife; he dedicated his life to aiding the homeless upon his retirement from the jewelry business.

Last Wednesday, he was arrested and cited for doing what he and his volunteers had been doing on a regular basis.

Not only was that shocking…what made it worse was that he is 90 years old.

abbott citeedSo, one can imagine the media frenzy, as the police handcuffed this elderly man in his white coat, as well as his volunteers, and cited him for doing good works. The news went viral…even Jon Stewart weighed in on his show.

The Mayor of Ft. Lauderdale, Jack Seiler, had stated this was part of the enforcement of a new city ordinance. He further explained this past Sunday on WPLG Channel 10 South Florida’s This Week in South Florida the reasoning behind the ordinance.

Bottom line? Hygiene. The area in which Mr. Abbott conducted the feeding was near the actual beach. Mr. Abbott believes that the homeless has the right to eat their food while enjoying the natural beauty of South Florida’s beaches. Mayor Seiler states that under the ordinance, all feeding of the homeless needs to be done close to restroom facilities (standing or a portable toilets), and with other hygiene restrictions. Mr. Abbott states that he met all of those requirements….but the interesting compromise that came from that on air roundtable interview was that there would be no further issues if he moved his feedings to a local church.

Both gentlemen discussed the effect the feeding of the homeless had on the tourists. Mr. Abbott said that the tourists he encountered would commend him for his actions, and would often offer to assist (a request he quickly grants); Mayor Seiler states that the tourists are horrified and claim they would NOT return to Ft. Lauderdale Beach until this horrible homeless problem is solved.

And now, we have arrived at the true struggle between views on the homeless. “Oh how sad, yes I’ll donate, but don’t come near my car, stay away from me you stinky person, hide the problem from me so I can enjoy my vacation” vs. “There but for the grace of God/luck/a good family go I”.

There are so many misconceptions about the homeless. They did not all get there from alcoholism, drug addiction or some form of laziness/irresponsibility. In this latest economic downturn, it could be as simple as the unemployment benefits ran out and the person had nowhere to go. It could have been a terrible turn of life events, and the person did not have the friends/family support to get back on their feet.

And, on this Veteran’s Day, think about those wounded warriors who came back from war suffering from PTSD, and could not get back on their feet. Some of the homeless are veterans who volunteered, risked their lives for us in various wars, and we have forgotten them – abandoning them to live on the streets.

Yet, we subject those who assist the homeless to possible fines and jail time rather than working with those who have the passion for change to find real solutions.

There’s this lady called Karma. And she does not like to be trifled with.

To learn more about Arnold Abbott and his organization, see Love Thy Neighbor.

M.

Mental Illness and the Law: A Rocky Relationship

Mental Illness and the Law: A Rocky Relationship

20140323-142740.jpg

Mental Illness is now back in the news, as a result of the video of a California Highway Patrol officer punching a mentally ill woman. The family of the woman plans to sue the police department for the officer’s actions.

Here is a piece I wrote regarding the painful issues that loved ones of mentally ill people deal with. These are actual stories, with the names omitted.

A 76 year old man was diagnosed late in life with schizophrenia. One of the side effects of this disease is that you do not believe you are ill or need medication; this elderly man was no different. After the death of his wife, he began to lose touch with reality. He began to neglect himself, not eat, and sit in an apartment during a heat wave, refusing to turn on the air conditioner. He was involuntarily hospitalized under the laws of the state, since it was found that he was a danger to himself. He received medication, was stabilized, and after two months, released back to his home with a care plan.

Approximately 1 in 4 adults across America suffer from some form of mental illness. Every state in the country has some version of what we call in Florida “the Baker Act”. If a friend, family member or neighbor sees someone who has mental health issues that are becoming out of control, they can call a local hospital, who visits the person in question. The police have the power to make this call as well. A psychiatric team visits the person, making observations about the person’s behavior, hygiene and surroundings. The team will ask questions, and determine whether or not the person is a danger to themselves or others. If the person is considered a danger, the law gives the team authority to have the person hospitalized (even against their will) for a minimum of 48 hours. The police are allowed to take the person by force if they refuse to go.

Several months later, the elderly man decided he was well, and stopped taking his medication. He became more and more angry, yelling at his daughter, and refusing to let the members of the care team into his home. He even physically pushed the aide who bought him groceries on a regular basis out the door of his house, because he was paranoid about why she was there. The difficult decision was made to call the medical team again to assess him. They determined he was a danger…but this time, he refused to go. The police came, and he fought. He fought with every fiber in his 76 year old being…until he was placed in a chokehold, handcuffed, and dragged out of his home of 40 years. At the hospital, he refused medication and refused to bathe. After going to court, the judge gave permission for the doctors to inject him with medication. So by force, he was held down and injected.

Medical intervention with the mentally ill is not always pretty. The question becomes, will this person harm themselves or others? It is even more difficult for the family, who has to stand by the sidelines, helpless and watching. The law allows for force to be used, as ugly as the result may be.

An attorney struggles with bipolar manic depression. When he is on his medications, he is the nicest guy you would ever want to meet. Generous, friendly, and great in the courtroom. However, when he stops taking his meds, he becomes violent and angry…almost a “Jekyll and Hyde” scenario. He hits his wife, ignores his children, and ends up stealing from a client. He is arrested, prosecuted, and loses his ability to practice law ever again.

Some mentally ill people end up in the criminal justice system. They may use illegal drugs to self medicate, in order to “make the voices stop”. They may commit crimes of violence against family members, law enforcement, and regular citizens. Some are less violent, but live in their own version of reality.

The other issue is the family. While the family suffers the ill effects of the person’s actions, they are struggling with the fact that deep down, the person is not bad, but ill. The age old question of “if your family member had cancer, would you stop speaking to them? How is mental illness different?” makes the struggle more difficult.

The criminal justice system, which is designed to punish, is slowly becoming more sensitive to these issues…but there are no easy answers. You can have a million programs in place to help the person struggling with mental illness. But the problem that remains is keeping the person on medication, when the disease tells them that they are fine.

Even the Monsters Are Worth Saving…

Even the Monsters Are Worth Saving…

20140323-142740.jpg

So, like many of you, I am an addict of the show “Scandal”. Not that I want to be Olivia Pope (although I do love her clothes, but hate her romantic decisions), it does give an interesting look of the behind the scenes of the dirty world of politics and national security. Whether it’s art imitating life accurately remains to be seen. But in last week’s episode, Olivia’s dad gave an impassioned speech about “even the monsters need saving”. This was in response to Olivia’s frustration about the fact that everyone around her seemed to be amoral at best, and used murder as a tool. “No one wears the white hat anymore” was her complaint. Olivia’s dad basically said, “YOU are the savior, and the one that drags every last one of us into the light.”

The monologue really hit home for me. Many times, people ask me, “why do you bother?” In my line of work as a prosecutor, I have challenges left, right and center. At times, I have victims who have no interest in participating in the prosecution. Even though they were the ones that were hurt, they are reluctant due to fear, apathy, or a deep distrust of the system. The community, especially the African American community, distrust the motives of a prosecutor. They assume your role is to lock up young men of color at any cost. On the other side, the hard core conservatives (some of whom are in my profession), look at the work I do in the community and say “why bother? You can’t save them”.

So why do I bother? Why do I take time away from myself, from my husband, skip lunch hours, to give lectures to young students in rough areas? Why do I get hands on in the nastiest housing projects? Why do I get frustrated when the media takes a narrow, sensationalized view of the legal system instead of the truth? Why do I sit down next to defendants, shackled, and who are facing a life sentence based on my recommendation but are about to take less as a plea and say to them “get it right this time…F$&! it up and I personally will lock the door and throw away the key?” Why do I persist in a job where no one thanks you by word or by paycheck?

Not out of weakness. Not out of my liberal leanings. Not out of perceived government employee laziness.

But because I want to touch one. Just one person a day. I know I can’t save them all. That would be ludicrous to believe.

But if one kid can say “you know, I remember when this chick who was a lawyer came to speak. She said xyz, and it stuck with me”. If one defendant says “someone offered me a chance, and I took it and turned my life around”. If one person in the community says “I was wrong about what prosecutors do, they are not all bad.” Then, I have succeeded.

Not everyone is born a monster. Some are, and yes, they need to be put down. HARD. I have no problem doing so. Others are monsters by lifestyle, and nothing in this world will change them. And again, I am there, ready with the proverbial smack down.

But it is those minds who are still open. Those minds, that need a nudge in the right direction, to get right. To get it right. Those in the crowd are who I want.

And now, I can quote Olivia Pope’s dad and say “even the monsters need saving”.