FIRST UP: EXTEND THE BAKER ACT
We can end homelessness in Miami Beach, and across the country.
We know how to diagnose and treat the complex mental health issues that so often are the root of a homeless person’s turmoil. We know the practical behavioral steps that the homeless must take to relaunch their lives successfully. We know the devastating impact that economic and financial dislocation can have on individuals and families.
And yet, despite the compassionate and critical work of many outstanding government and charitable organizations, homelessness continues, visibly, in Miami Beach and beyond. On any given night, an estimated 400 people are homeless in Miami Beach, part of a staggering 580,000 across the country.
In a civilized, affluent society, those numbers are not acceptable. We can’t just accept that the homeless are a permanent fixture in our urban lives. We cannot turn a blind eye to the personal degradation of homelessness, nor ignore the impact it has on the quality of life for all of us.
In this new occasional editorial feature on our Web site, we’re going to focus on the concrete, practical steps that government, nonprofits, businesses and others can take to be more successful tackling the scourge of homelessness in their communities. We’re calling this space Solutions because that is what we seek: Solutions to end homeless in Miami Beach, and across the country.
First up for this debut blog: We need to extend the treatment time stipulated in the Baker Act.
The Baker Act is Florida legislation, first passed in 1971 and subsequently updated, that allows police, doctors, mental health specialists and others to involuntarily institutionalize an individual who displays signs of serious mental illness and looks to be a threat to self or others. The law directs the state to maintain a network of approved mental health facilities to receive patients delivered through the Baker Act.
In Miami Beach, the designated facility is Mt. Sinai Hospital’s psych ward.
Numerous other states and countries have similar laws on the books.
But here’s the problem: Florida’s Baker Act sets a maximum involuntary conferment deadline at just 72 hours. After 72 hours, the patient (usually) can leave.
Simply put, 72 hours is not long enough.
We need to extend the period of involuntary treatment to 90 days. Yes, 90 days.
That is how long it realistically takes to get a patient onto a regimen of medication that works best for that individual. There’s no cookie-cutter formula for mental illness medication prescriptions; only a psychiatrist can properly fine tune the right dose and monitor the patient’s recovery. And that takes time.
With the limit set at 72 hours, the Baker Act can be a revolving door. A homeless person can get medical attention, a few decent meals, a warm bed and cleaned up before returning to the streets.
We need to break that cycle. Increasing the involuntary treatment time would go a long way to reducing recidivism among those homeless who have been treated initially but, for whatever illness-clouded reasons, reverted.
This proposal is not without its controversies. For starters, the cost to the taxpayer would be significant, and legislators would need to allocate sufficient budgetary resources, including for hiring more mental health specialists.
And then there is the notion that a homeless person’s civil liberties are violated by involuntary treatment. If a homeless person wants to live rough on the streets, why should government be able to say no, the argument goes. It’s not illegal to be crazy.
But there is plenty of precedent for government forcing us to do things might infringe on our individual rights. Just a handful of months ago, government told us to stay home to prevent the spread of Covid. Businesses shut down. Schools closed. For a while, the routines of daily life came to a halt.
And most Americans willingly complied.
Government tells us not to smoke in a movie theater, not because the risk to the smoker but to others.
The homeless people we see on our streets are our fellow citizens, worthy of our help for that reason alone. But the homeless we see degrades our entire community, in our case all of us on Miami Beach.
Let’s accept that it will take some bitter medicine – including a longer confinement period – to give the homeless a real chance move beyond life on the streets. And for all of us to benefit from their recovery.
Have an opinion or suggestions? Want to submit a column?
Please contact us at Valerie@FavelaMiami.org
John Buckman is a retired journalist and marketing consultant now living in Miami Beach.He believes homelessness is a crime society inflicts upon its weakest members.