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How redefining 'gravely disabled' could help LA's homeless

Skid Row in Downtown L.A.
Skid Row in Downtown L.A.
Andres Aguila/KPCC

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The L.A. County Board of Supervisors approved a motion this week urging state lawmakers to change its definition of "gravely disabled." And two Los Angeles area members of the California assembly followed that up Wednesday by introducing legislation to amend the state code.

The change in definition is intended to give officials more power to forcibly treat homeless people who are mentally ill. Take Two sat down with L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger to learn more about how the changes could help the homeless. 

LA County Supervisor Kathryn Barger
LA County Supervisor Kathryn Barger

The definition of "gravely disabled"

The language right now is a condition in which a person as a result of a mental health disorder is unable to provide his or her basic personal needs for food, clothes or shelter. I want to expand that to also include medical treatment, for the lack or failure of such treatment may result in substantial physical harm or death. 

Why expand or amend the definition 

When I was on Skid Row working with social workers, there was a woman by the name of Debra with swollen and infected feet that refused health care. She doesn't need mental help, she needs basic healthcare. Refining the Welfare and Institution Code would give us the ability to get people like Debra the medical help they need. 

Critics of expanding the definition 

Those who call this approach inhuman argue the people refusing medical care have their basic civil liberties rights. We want the civil liberty representatives at the table to craft the code so it's sensitive. I argue that having someone end up in the morgue is not the way I want my legacy as LA County Supervisor to be remembered.

How it would look in practice

It's all about trust and building a relationship. This is going to affect those individuals with a direct medical need -- someone on Skid Row with sores, infections, surrounded by feces, someone who, if not treated, will die. One of the great things we are doing here in L.A. County is opening urgent care centers that are specifically for mental illness. Therefore, everyday law enforcement doesn't have to make a determination of whether a person is in need of additional medical attention. The urgent care centers will be able to link up the appropriate services.  

This interview has been edited for clarity.