A Badly Altered State

Last May, six homeless people sleeping outside the Denver City and County Building were awakened by the cops and arrested. They were there because city sweeps of the traditional homeless camping grounds along the South Platte River and Cherry Creek had forced them to migrate to Civic Center Park and sleep on the grates in front of city hall. Every night, dozens of them gathered around the building and set up a makeshift camp, creating a sad spectacle in front of Denver's symbol of municipal power.

After city workers and visitors complained about the resulting mess -- windowsills were used as outdoor toilets, trash and used needles littered the grounds -- the city cracked down. But no one was supposed to get arrested; Mayor Wellington Webb had insisted he was a friend of the homeless. Officials later claimed that two rookie cops had misunderstood their instructions and failed to call social workers who would have handled the evacuation in a more sensitive fashion.

And so the ragtag assortment of unbathed people with a habit of talking to themselves was escorted to the city jail, which often becomes a de facto homeless shelter. Since an estimated 50 percent of the homeless suffer from some kind of mental illness, including paranoid schizophrenia and other chronic conditions, it could also be said that the jail serves as an unofficial mental hospital.

That same month, just up the steps from where the six people were arrested, in a marble-clad courtroom, Denver District Court Judge Morris Hoffman was considering a case that directly pertained to their lives. For nearly twenty years, a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the chronically mentally ill has been making its way through the courts. It accuses the City of Denver and the State of Colorado of ignoring the plight of the homeless mentally ill and failing to provide them with adequate shelter and treatment. The suit is known as the Goebel case, after Ruth Ann Goebel, a mentally ill and homeless woman who died in a Denver alley in 1983, not far from a mental-health clinic that had recently discharged her.

Following years of squabbling, a settlement between the parties was reached in 1994. It called for Denver to provide housing for the mentally ill and for the state to provide treatment to the residents of that housing. Denver eventually met its commitment and purchased the housing, but the state failed to provide enough staff to allow many of the units to be filled, and dozens of them sat empty for years.

As a result, Denver attorney Kathleen Mullen, who has devoted more than fifteen years of her life to pursuing the case, returned to court and asked Judge Hoffman to find the state in contempt. Last fall, an angry Hoffman ruled that Colorado had not fulfilled its agreement to offer services to the homeless mentally ill in Denver, and he told the state to immediately meet those needs or face a contempt citation. In March, Hoffman followed up on his promise and found the state in contempt. Next week he will decide what action to take.

Mullen has asked the court to order Marva Hammons, director of the Colorado Department of Human Services, which supervises state mental-health services, to apply for a bed every night at a homeless shelter. If she finds shelter and thus displaces a homeless person, Mullen has asked that the state pay the cost of a hotel room for that homeless person. In addition, she requested that the state be fined $5,000 for every day it is not in compliance with the court order.

"Anyone who's the head of an agency who would allow 85 units of housing to lie fallow needs to feel what it's like for a chronically mentally ill person to be homeless," says Mullen. "That's why I want Marva Hammons to queue up at a homeless shelter."

During the past two decades, while hundreds of homeless mentally ill people slept underneath bridges and foraged through dumpsters in central Denver, the State of Colorado spent countless hours arguing in court that it was doing everything it could to help them.

The class-action lawsuit it was fighting was spurred by budget cuts in the early 1980s that closed several facilities for the mentally ill in downtown Denver and on Capitol Hill. It was filed in 1981 by several attorneys on behalf of an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 people with chronic mental illness living in central Denver. The plaintiffs charged that the services Colorado provided were inadequate and in violation of the Colorado Care and Treatment of the Mentally Ill Act, which says that those with severe mental illness are entitled to treatment. (After the lawsuit was filed, the state legislature amended that part of the law to add the words "subject to available appropriations.")

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers