Use Resources to Help People, Not for Feel-Good Causes


A version of this article previously appeared in the Gainesville Sun.

I recently had a personal encounter with a 15-year-old runaway. She had been Baker-acted at UF Health Shands Psychiatric Hospital (Vista) after stealing her mother’s car.

Once she was out of crisis, she transitioned to Interface Youth Shelter; she then ran away from Interface after several days and, according to her, spent the next two days with a family that included a “crackhead.” When we found her, she was heading back to Interface to get her clothes with the intention of returning to the crackhead’s house.

We talked to her and her mom (by phone) about her options. She said she felt “crazy” and “psychotic” and that she thought she was likely to hurt someone she cared about. Her options were lousy: live on the street (likely leading to sexual trafficking) or go to Vista or Meridian.

She doesn’t like the psychiatric hospitals because she thinks everyone there is in much worse shape than she is. But a psychiatric hospital is just a stop-gap: They exist to stabilize people, not to help them get better in the long-term.

As far as I can tell, there are no medium- or long-term options in our area for people (especially juveniles) who are unable to live safely in a family setting but are not in immediate danger of hurting themselves or others.

Gainesville’s big push right now is to be a zero waste city, but the city should step back and think about using its resources to actually help its citizens. Gainesville currently disposes of waste in a responsible way, and technology will likely be able to solve the problem of piles of waste in the future, so the zero waste designation is mainly an attempt to signal that Gainesville is every bit as progressive as Portland.

Specifically — and relevant to the goal of helping underprivileged citizens — Gainesville’s proposal to eliminate plastic shopping bags hurts the very people that the city claims to care about: those who are too poor to afford cars.

It’s easy for those of us with cars to keep our reusable shopping bags in our trunks, but someone who rides the bus to work and buys groceries on the way home has to carry those bags around all day. If they forgot them while getting out the door in the morning, too bad — they are limited to the number of paper bags they can carry. Is a zero waste label worth making life even harder for people with limited transportation options?

Helping the mentally ill is a very thorny problem with no good solutions, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Institutionalizing the mentally ill has very negative connotations, but maybe we can stomach our dislike of depriving people of freedom if the focus is on continually moving them through increasing levels of self-sufficiency.

Having a safe place to build a relationship with a therapist, get appropriate medications, and learn basic life skills would move Gainesville toward reducing the problems of homelessness, excessive calls to law enforcement, and even income inequity.

The city of Gainesville should take any resources they were planning on putting toward the zero waste initiative and work with Alachua County, local churches and other charities to open a medium-term residential mental health facility.

This would be a more effective use of resources to solve a more pressing problem for our community. Among other benefits, it would take the burden off parents who feel that they have few, if any, options for keeping their children and their families safe when the child is dealing with mental illness.