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Mentally ill on the streets: The Troubleshooter investigates

Published: Apr. 6, 2021 at 9:14 PM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - Sometimes an important story happens right in front of your face, but you don’t see it. Maybe you don’t really want to see it.

Every minute of every hour of every day, for weeks and then months, I noticed Janae Prater sitting under an awning of a vacant building across the street from our television station. Never moving except to use a bathroom that wasn’t there. Always watching a world go by that somehow left her behind.

It happened sometime after 2016 when Prater’s Facebook page showed a normal life with typical kids, an ordinary job, and an orderly household. Now she was just sitting here, from the heat of the summer to the polar plunge of the winter.

Below zero on a couple nights in February. She lied under her blankets and the icy white snow blanket that covered everything. Hundreds of people like me drove by every day. She accepted help from myself and others passing by.

Her requests were simple: water, burgers, and blankets. Her situation was complicated: evicted, jailed, and hospitalized.

“Now I’m in the streets,” Prater told me. “I’m trying to get help with housing after I got illegally kicked out. I’m not a drug addict who had strong addiction. They took me to Central State, which is like a psych facility. I was offered a tent like five times. I told them you can’t fix this problem with a tent. Mind you I didn’t have anything when I came out of jail.”

The longer she talked, the better I understood the real issue here.

“I had to actually get a Mexico representative in this situation because the US does not want to do anything for me,” Prater said. “They do not want to get me off the street. So I have faith in Mexico.”

A Harvard study found one-third of the nation’s homeless have a serious mental illness. You can see homelessness all around downtown and the numbers grow every year. The latest count in Louisville found 1,100 people homeless on any given night.

“Homelessness is the effect of systems that are not working, a safety net that is not catching everyone,” Coalition for the Homeless Executive Director Natalie Harris said.

Harris said Louisville ranks high nationally in available treatment for substance abuse but on the low end for mental health treatment for people like Prater.

“So we are very weak in that area,” Harris said. “And there are never enough places that people can go either to just get the services or to get some kind of setting where someone can stay overnight and get services.”

Jeff Gill of Hip Hop Cares is one of the outreach workers on the streets every day trying to talk people experiencing mental illness to get help.

“If you’ve experienced street homelessness, you’re going to have mental health struggles from that alone,” Gill said.

But what can be done for the homeless who refuse mental health treatment?

“Unless they are presenting a danger to themselves or someone else then it is an option to discuss getting a mental inquest warrant, which would basically make someone get the help they deserve,” Gill said.

And that’s exactly what happened to Prater.

On March 10, she disappeared. Police confirmed to us they took her away with a mental inquest warrant. A couple days later the building she leaned on for months went up in a 2-alarm fire.

Just a couple days after that, Prater was back sitting in the busted glass next to that building. Citing health privacy laws, no one would tell us why she was already back on the street.

“A mental inquest warrant is really just a judge’s order to have someone assessed to see if they meet criteria,” Seven Counties Services Adult Services VP Jean Romano said. “It doesn’t guarantee that they are going to be held in a hospital or be forced to engage in treatment.”

In Kentucky, by law, to keep someone hospitalized who doesn’t want to be, that person must be a danger to self or others, can reasonably benefit from treatment, and hospitalization has to be the least restrictive mode of treatment available.

“You have to meet all of the criteria in order to be held,” Romano said. “Hospitals are really designed to help people stabilize and then come back out to the community, so a hospital is not really a fix for a mental health crisis.”

One thing did change in Prater’s few days away. Her blankets, water and food were gone. So I brought her some more.

“When they came and got you this last time on a mental inquest warrant did you think, ‘OK, somebody’s finally going to do something here?’” I asked.

“No I didn’t,” she said. “I had no faith at all because they been lying to me. When they took me I was like ‘I don’t really want to go, is this gonna help my situation?’”

And then on March 26, one more change. A fence went up around her burned out back rest and she was kicked out.

A lot of fences in Prater’s life. And the grass isn’t greener on the other side.

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