This is a picture of one of many homeless encampments in the Westwood area of Los Angeles. This man was living here until recently, but the City (or whomever maintains the bus benches) removed the bench and I believe he's joined up with a woman who also lives on the sidewalk a few blocks down. It's incredible. They have toiletries, pots and pans, clothes, etc. The majority of homeless people that I observe in my neighborhood seem to be mentally ill or addicted to drugs or alcohol. For those people who can get clean or are homeless for other reasons there are often support services and transitional housing. The VA hospital is also nearby so vets who struggle with mental illness or addiction tend to congregate where services are provided for them. I'm hard pressed to agree that this is an urban design issue. We need to make room for services in our land use plans, but beyond that do planners play a role in the solution? This problem affects the livability of our cities, but we can't urban design our way around mental illness and addiction. Ignoring this problem undermines social order and detracts from the efforts to make our cities more livable.
Are we being humane by allowing mentally ill people to wander the streets dirty, hungry, and confused? Is it more humane to decide as a society that we need to take charge of the lives of the mentally ill and compel them to get help and even institutionalize them. There are civil liberty issues of course, but at what point does a mentally ill person pose enough of a threat that the state should step in to protect them and the public? Orange County, California recently voted to make use of a relatively new state law that allows for court-ordered treatment of mentally ill. This is forced treatment for the mentally I'll and is as much about protecting them as the rest of us. It's a good start in at least one part of SoCal.