Antonio Carrion's Mental Health Battle Reveals Increasing Dilemma to Protect Seriously Ill Homeless
Antonio Carrion appeared well on his way to stardom in the early 1990s. A star football player at Dorsey High School near Baldwin Hills, Carrion’s athletic skills earned him a college scholarship and accolades in a national publication. Even the gang members in his neighborhood treated him with respect. Despite a mother in prison and a father who abused drugs, Carrion was on his way.
But, like a blindside tackle, mental illness derailed Carrion and his dreams. Carrion disappeared, landing on the street in dire need of help. Diagnosed later as bipolar and paranoid schizophrenic, Carrion spent his days walking and sleeping on the sidewalks, or behind bars or in court, arrested more than 40 times since he graduated high school in 1992.
Carrion’s story is like so many others. He is among the thousands of mentally ill homeless living on Southern California’s streets, creating blight and trash along sidewalks, abusing drugs, cycling in and out of jail, and costing taxpayers for housing him in jail and his routine visits to court. Jail officials estimate a regular inmate costs the county about $150 a day; a mentally ill inmate about $657 a day.
“We’ve got to get our arms around it,” said Mark Gale, criminal justice chair for the Los Angeles County National Alliance on Mental Illness. “We’ve got to stop denying higher levels of care for the seriously ill by giving them the care they need and doing it in a better way…We need to come to the realization that the outpatient system can’t do this by itself.”
SoCal Connected estimates Carrion alone has cost taxpayers a million dollars. Court records show Carrion’s crimes started light and gradually escalated. By January, prosecutors had filed charges against him about 40 times since he graduated from high school in 1992 for everything from driving without a license to drug possession and attempted robbery to assault with a deadly weapon. He never had inpatient mental health treatment, other than during his various stints in jail.
“The first time he came to me he was taking his medication and everything was fabulous until the moment that he found out that he didn’t have to if didn’t want to,” Norka Regalado, who runs sober living centers, told SoCal Connected. “Then he stopped taking the medication and we see the outcome -- Taxpayers paying millions of dollars for somebody like Antonio to go to jail, to see the judge. Overcrowded jails, social workers, therapists, psychiatrists, parole department, probation department, the police department, emergency (Psychiatric Emergency Teams) to come and assess the situation – All that for really nothing.
“Because at the end, he always ends up committing a crime, back to jail and here we go, another million dollars because that’s the process. Definitely it is not working.”
Voters tried to do something. In November 2004, Californians approved Proposition 63, the Mental Health Services Act, which imposed a 1 percent tax on personal income over $1 million. Millionaires were expected to provide hundreds of millions of dollars each year to county mental health programs. Since its implementation in 2005, billions of dollars have been raised. According to a state audit released in February, the MHSA generated $1.5 billion for fiscal year 2015-16, which was distributed to 59 county and local mental health agencies.
The audit, however, found counties had failed to spend hundreds of millions, and the state Mental Health Services department was not holding county authorities accountable for how they used it and what they didn’t use. Gale said 26 counties don’t have beds for psychiatric patients.
Gale said that money provides only for outpatient services. Someone like Carrion, and so many others like him, on the street, need inpatient care, something the state moved away from in the 1970s and 80s. A mentally ill person cannot be forced to seek care or take medication. Short stays in jail or on brief psychiatric holds in hospitals when police pick them up, results in sending people in serious need of care back onto the streets without it, he said.
Every community in California, Gale said, needs a “minimum level of institutionalized short-term and long-term care for the people who are the most sick.” It’s not politically correct, he said, to talk about it.
“Somebody’s got to get some courage in Sacramento and start talking about how we fix this,” Gale said. “We need crisis beds. We need to get people stable so they can behanded off to the outpatient system.”
Otherwise, people like Carrion continue to live on the street without help, getting most of their treatment in jail, Gale said. They do not seek help in outpatient clinics.
“If you believe that the FBI is following you and the government has a plan to try to kill you or Jesus is talking to you through the TV set, if you’re that ill and that’s your reality, you are probably not asking for mental help,” Gale said. “For the people who are that ill, they are not accessing the mental health system.”
Instead, they run through the court system. Court records show Carrion’s crimes started slowly and gradually escalated. At 20, Carrion, arrested for driving without a license and speeding in September 1994, drew a sentence of five days in jail. A month later, he again faced a judge for driving without a license and received 13 days in jail.
By 1996, Carrion faced more vehicle code violations and a theft charge that earned him two years on probation and a month in jail. In 1998, a judge sentenced him to another six months in jail for driving without a license. In 1999, law enforcement arrested him for alleged grand theft, disturbing the peace, and a weapons violation.
In 2002, doctors diagnosed him as bipolar with paranoid schizophrenia. He was prescribed medication but did not take it.
In December 2006, a judge sentenced him to three years behind bars for possession of methamphetamine. In 2011, prosecutors charged Carrion with resisting arrest and forgery.
On April 3, 2012, Carrion faced his most serious charges: Attempted robbery and methamphetamine possession. Found guilty, Carrion was sentenced to three years, eight months in jail.
Once he was released, his problems with the law continued:
- A nearly two-year sentence for methamphetamine possession in July 2014.
- A six-month term for failing to meet with his parole officer in October 2015.
- Two weeklong jail sentences in December 2015 and August 2016 for again failing to see his parole officer.
- Numerous other misdemeanor cases in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.
Over the years, Carrion spent brief periods in treatment facilities while incarcerated. This included seven days at a Hawthorne mental health treatment facility in September 2017. But no one can be forced to stay.
In January, Carrion faced one of his few felony cases. Prosecutors charged him with assault with a deadly weapon — a cane. The case remains open because Carrion was not deemed competent to understand the charges against him and stand trial.
Gale said that while Carrion is held in custody, he is hospitalized in a program to try to restore his competency.
“He never accepted treatment in the community but he’s doing really well now,” Gale said. “He’s more clear-headed, more lucid. Why? He’s in a really structured environment and he is receiving treatment.”