Top right -- Gina Pérez giving her homeless son, Joseph Zamora, a kiss on the forehead after bringing him clean clothes, food and blankets on a rainy day. (Photo Courtesy of Gina Pérez)

This is Part Two of a Two-Part article.

A source of frustration for Pérez has been navigating what she describes as the “very fragmented system” of the LA County Department of Mental Health, the court systems handling the mentally ill and the law enforcement that comes in contact with them. 

There are also limits to what she can do for an adult man like Joseph. “I can’t force my son to get help,” she says with vexation. Except, she says, when he represents a danger to himself or others as determined by police officers or mental health professionals. But often by the time they arrive, Joseph’s behavior has improved so no help is offered.  

She’s found a system where there are too many working at public agencies who’ve become jaded and fail to help.  

Once, Pérez recalls, a social worker told her, “If [your son] can distinguish between food and feces, he’s not going to starve. He can take care of himself.” Pérez disagrees, asking, “Why is humanity so cruel in that way, that we’re going to allow people with severe mental illness to make choices like eating spoiled food or not eating at all?”

Also, some police officers have expressed hurtful opinions, according to Pérez. “Sometimes they’ve said stuff like, ‘Don’t let your son in your house, he’s gonna kill you,’” she claims, with tears in her eyes. “‘Or, ‘he’s a lost cause. Why are you wasting your time calling us?’”

Some elected and appointed officials have let her down, too. Not long ago, she called her local congressional representative to ask if the US Department of Housing and Urban Development had programs to help the homeless. “The aide said they would get back to me,” recalls Pérez, without naming the US representative or the employee. “Never heard back.” She also filed a “discrimination questionnaire” on the HUD website. “No response,” she says.

A Nonprofit Offers Help

During better times Joseph Zamora celebrating his birthday with a cake. (Photo Courtesy of Gina Pérez)

In time, the desperate mother found the San Fernando Valley chapter of the National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI), a nonprofit run by volunteers based in Chatsworth. There she learned how to write a summary of her son’s mental health history to help professionals interact with him during hospitalizations and after arrests. “I call it my son’s mental health rap sheet,” she says, adding that the document includes his name, mental and other health diagnoses, medications and symptoms. “They are able in a quick sheet to see what’s going on with your loved one,” she says. 

More recently, Pérez took a NAMI class called “Family to Family” for families of the mentally ill to share their experiences. She talked about how her 40-something son behaves like a 17-year-old, as if he’s stuck at an age a few years before he started showing symptoms of schizophrenia. The family class can be both cathartic and inspiring. “I am able to share my experience with others who also have loved ones with mental illness, and how not to give up hope,” Pérez says. 

Care of Oneself, Community Action

Self-care, she’s come to realize, is essential for her personal well-being. In this, faith plays an important role, she says. In a corner of her San Fernando apartment, a small home altar displays photos of Joseph with family members next to images of Christ and the Virgin of Guadalupe, all lit by a flickering blue candle.

Part of her self-care has been to pursue a college education. Through her troubles and tribulations and while working full time after raising three children, Pérez enrolled at California State University, Northridge and earned a bachelor’s degree in Chicana/o studies in 2018. Now she works as a scholarship coordinator for CSUN’s Financial Aid Department. She also decided to pursue a master’s degree at the Northridge campus and expects to graduate this summer.

Despite some of her experiences with unresponsive elected officials and government agencies, Pérez encourages Valley residents to make their voices heard, especially about matters dealing with the unhoused and mentally ill. “So, if you see a homeless person, and are upset about it, I ask that you use that to call your local politicians,” she says, from city councilmembers, state assembly members and senators to county supervisors and Congress members. “Ask them what they are doing to help these homeless individuals and their families.”

Pérez would also like to see better training of public servants on justice, equity, discrimination and inclusion, from judges and public defenders to attorneys and law enforcement officers. 

Too often, the “unhoused” or homeless are dismissed without understanding. People often will repeat misconceptions to say, “people want to live on the street,” which negates the complexity of those with serious challenges and discourages compassion.

It’s because there are too few mental health treatment programs available or hospitals that force the mentally ill onto the street and keep them there. Doctors and emergency rooms might only see mentally ill homeless people if they express that they are a harm to themselves. They are not set up for chronic care. There are few psychiatric hospitals or available housing for the mentally ill.  

Those like Joseph who are schizophrenic may hear voices or feel they are unsafe. They may even leave a safe environment because they hear voices that tell them to leave and someone is trying to harm them. Some may believe living in a home is making their symptoms worse and believe living on the streets will make their symptoms better or even disappear.  

They are a part of the homeless population that is sometimes seen having a conversation and talking to someone who isn’t there. 

In the meantime, Pérez hopes that the CARE Act passed in 2020 could be part of the solution to help those indigents with mental illness like her son. The CARE Act provides mental health and substance use disorder services to those most impaired who are homeless or incarcerated and not receiving treatment.

A Legal Challenge 

Not everyone favors the new law. Earlier this year, three civil rights groups filed a petition to the California Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the CARE Courts program. 

“CARE Court is a coerced, court-ordered treatment system that strips people with mental health disabilities of their right to make their own decisions about their lives,” says Disability Rights California, one of the petition filers, on its website. The other two groups suing are the Western Center on Law & Poverty and The Public Interest Law Project, which argue that the law doesn’t deal with the roots of homelessness. The ACLU also opposes the legislation. 

While nonprofit organizations like the ACLU maintain their opposition is in the interest of one’s right to self-determination and personal rights, for many parents like Pérez, CARE Court may be their best hope. It will force their loved ones to receive treatment. As it stands, those with mental illness who need serious medical treatment can simply refuse it, no matter how dire their situation is. It also prevents them from immediately walking out of treatment once they have been admitted.  

Sen. Tom Umberg is optimistic the CARE Act will prevail. A lawyer by trade, he notes that the state Supreme Court so far hasn’t issued an injunction against the law he co-authored, which he interprets as a potential sign that the court doesn’t see any problems with it. A final decision could take months if the court decides to take the case at all. So the state has decided to implement a pilot program in Los Angeles and other counties. 

“We’re not gonna wait,” Umberg says. “I don’t think they [the petitioners] are going to be successful. We’re moving ahead.” He acknowledges the CARE Courts “are not a magic wand” to fix all the complexities of the mentally ill but states they could provide stability to people for recovery. 

A Tenacious Mother Locates Her Son on the Street Each Day

For now, without support, Pérez goes about her daily routine to help her homeless son. Before and after work and on weekends, she visits him, finding him usually around the intersection of Hubbard and Glenoaks to make sure he gets breakfast and dinner, and, equally important, the pills he needs for his schizophrenia. In addition to a pack of snacks, she also throws in a few incentives, $5 for lottery tickets and a few cigarettes.

“He also suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder and this helps with that,” she says. 

Pérez also hopes other people won’t ever forget her son’s humanity. “Joseph is a son, a brother, a grandson, an uncle and my loved one. He is also a friend to several homeless people, and what one may call a ‘menace to the community’ he is homeless in, Joseph has always loved to talk to people.”

Remaining positive through the years hasn’t been easy for Pérez but she says her spirituality has given her the strength to carry on, standing by her son Joseph. “Hope is a discipline and I have to remember this at every step of the way, and my Catholic faith and trust in God help me persevere.” 

Many parents in similar situations as Pérez who struggle to navigate help for their adult children with mental illness worry about their own health. As they age, they’re concerned about their own mortality and wonder how long they’ll be able to continue to help their loved ones. 

Finding a steady foundation of compassionate care they can count on would ease their fear and lift their constant worry for their mentally ill family members.  

The uncertainty of the CARE Act weighs on the San Fernando mother, worrying about the possibility the law could be struck down before she can ask the courts to help her son. 

“I just don’t want Joseph to die on the streets.”

Editor Diana Martinez contributed to this article