In a small Texas town, a mother begins each morning with a gut-churning routine.
Kimberlie Burnett brews some coffee and then uses her smartphone to search Los Angeles County jail logs and local news sites for clues about the whereabouts and well-being of her mentally ill son, James. The 29-year-old has been homeless in Long Beach for seven years.
Sometimes the 56-year-old mom calls the city’s hospitals to see whether James has once again been involuntarily held for a 72-hour psychiatric evaluation—a discovery that brings her a measure of relief because she knows that at least he’s off the streets and receiving some kind of care.
“Even though I know he’s a grown man,” Kimberlie says, “I’m a mother and I still feel responsible.”
Each day can bring a potential calamity for mentally ill people on the street, their families and, on occasion, the wider public.
With homelessness rapidly rising among individuals with serious mental health issues, Long Beach and other jurisdictions acknowledge they are overmatched, leaving few treatment avenues for people like James. Too often, the jail system becomes the option of first resort.
Although Los Angeles County operates the largest mental health care system in the nation, it is mostly equipped to care for people when their situation becomes an acute emergency. “We continue to have a crisis-focused system, in part because there’s so much crisis,” says Paul Duncan, director of the Long Beach Homeless Services Bureau.
During her morning routine in mid-October, Kimberlie says she was overwhelmed by one of her most haunting fears—that her son would kill somebody. “I would never get over that,” she says.
Kimberlie had found a story about the arrest of a murder suspect on the sand of Alamitos Beach, not far from where James was known to wander and sleep. Authorities said they believed the attacker was homeless and had been randomly stabbing people.
It sounded harrowingly familiar to Kimberlie. Back in 2018, she had learned during one of her online searches that James had been arrested for stabbing a woman in a park near Downtown. The woman, a stranger, survived the attack.
When Kimberlie learned of the new attack, she already was on high alert because she hadn’t heard word of James for more than two weeks, not since he appeared outside a Long Beach relative’s house, pounding on a table, threatening to break windows and demanding to see family members who weren’t there. Kimberlie says he was apparently high on meth and experiencing a bipolar episode.
Kimberlie had called Long Beach police, urging them to place James on a psychiatric hold, but the responding officers told her he did not meet the strict criteria to be forcibly hospitalized.
In her quest to determine whether James was involved in the Alamitos Beach assault, Kimberlie wrote a plea on the Long Beach Post’s Facebook page, where the article on the stabbing had been posted. Does anyone know what the attacker looked like? she asked.
“Please if anyone has a description PLEASE,” she wrote.
Although no one answered her question, there was no shortage of comments about the increasing number of mentally ill homeless people on the streets. One man shared a video of a menacing man spouting homophobic slurs at him near the main library to show “what is happening in Downtown Long Beach every day.”
When Kimberlie saw the video, she was overcome with relief. It was James, and he was now too chubby to fit the description of the slim knife-wielding suspect in the Alamitos Beach attack. She could see he was moving gingerly, his feet turned outward, a sign of the pain he endures from hip dysplasia, the result of brittle bone disease.
The video also filled Kimberlie with a sense of shame.
“This is my son who I have been trying to get some help for a long time,” she wrote, as a comment in response. “I am so sorry he did this to you. It breaks my heart. He wasn’t always like this. He is so sick.”
‘Very few tools’
Rex Richardson, Long Beach’s newly elected mayor, knows the frustrations families face in trying to access mental health care for loved ones.
Richardson’s younger brother has been homeless and suffering from drug addiction and mental illness for more than a decade. Like Kimberlie, the mayor’s family has tried everything it can think of, even hiring an attorney, to get his brother help.
“I have access to all kinds of resources,” Richardson says. “I own a home. I engage with county leaders on a regular basis, and I’ve been at the table with regional agencies. Yet despite all these things, I know there are very few tools for families to go out and save their families.”
In interviews with past and present Long Beach and Los Angeles County leaders, as well as with homeless advocates and health professionals, most agree that the mental health system has been broken and vastly underfunded for years. The difference now is that the worsening crisis, once largely hidden, is playing out daily on city streets as encampments proliferate, prompting wide calls for action.
In Long Beach, business owners have threatened to close up shop over safety concerns, and residents routinely vent their frustration at council meetings and on social media. In October, the city sent a clear message on how dire the situation had become when it closed the new $48-million Billie Jean King library Downtown for a month to improve security because employees felt unsafe.
This year’s homeless count in Long Beach quantified the deepening problem.
It revealed not only that the city’s unhoused population had soared by 62% but that 37% of surveyed individuals—more than 1,200 of them—reported suffering from serious mental health issues. That represented a 143% increase over the last count two years ago and a higher percentage of mental illness than was reported in the broader Los Angeles County homeless count.
Despite these new realities on the street, mental health services in Long Beach remain scattered and scarce. There are just 16 beds for residential mental health treatment in the city, which must be shared with the county as a whole.
Most often, individuals with mental health issues, like James, cycle through jails and hospitals—the default landing spots—with nowhere to go once they’re stabilized. Soon they’re back on the streets until the next emergency. The system is like a bridge missing its middle: There are entry points, but little hope of passing through to the other side.
“When you look at the funding available and the existing need, it doesn’t equate,” says Kelly Colopy, director of the Department of Health and Human Services in Long Beach.
Richardson, the new mayor, wrote a memo a year ago while serving on the council that called on city staff to explore new ways to improve the city’s mental health efforts. But by then Long Beach was already in crisis—and had been for years.
The number of police calls for mental health emergencies has risen 26% over the past five years, from 4,696 in 2017 to 6,353 in 2021, according to dispatch records obtained by the Post through a Public Records Act request.
What’s more, patient data from St. Mary Medical Center, the closest hospital to Downtown, showed the city as a whole had twice the rate of emergency hospitalizations for mental health as both the county and state.
“The number of people in our system right now that have mental health challenges is off the charts,” Colopy says.
It’s not clear why the need for mental health care is more acute among Long Beach’s homeless population, but some experts have pointed to possible geographic factors, such as the city’s coastal location and its two urban rivers, which provide cover for encampments.
City leaders have also blamed the fact that the Metro A Line ends in the heart of Downtown, forcing passengers, many of them homeless with mental illness, to disembark while the trains are cleaned late into the night.
Although the city is now intensifying its efforts to meet the challenges—it has hired a consultant and empowered an advisory board as a result of Richardson’s memo—it is still largely reliant on the county system for services.
“It’s not going to be a quick fix in any possible way,” says health director Colopy.
‘I can make myself sick over it’
Kimberlie has been helping James navigate bipolar disorder since he was 5 and the family was living in Long Beach. Even back then, the days seemed consumed with endless doctors appointments, hospital visits and brushes with the juvenile justice system.
At home, James fought nearly constantly with his older brother, according to Kimberlie. She says that when she tried to discipline James, he’d become frighteningly distraught and withdrawn. After one argument, she says, she walked into his room to find him lying on his mattress, tightening a belt around his neck. He was about 10.
After high school, as James began experimenting with drugs and falling in with local gang members, Kimberlie moved with him to a 100-acre ranch her father had owned near a Texas town of about 400 people. The quieter life among the cows and countryside, she thought, would help keep James out of trouble. But it could not keep him from addiction.
“He found, out of 400 people, the one person who does drugs,” she says.
Arrested for possession of meth at 19, Texas prosecutors gave James a second chance by seeking probation instead of a maximum of two years in jail. But, according to court records, James said he thought the case had been dismissed, rather than suspended pending completion of probation.
He was almost immediately arrested again for marijuana possession. This time, he was sentenced to nine months behind bars, despite his attorney’s argument that James wasn’t mentally competent to face the proceedings.
After serving his time, Kimberlie says, James declared he was bored with Texas and took a Greyhound bus back to Long Beach.
Between 2017 and today, records show that James has been jailed at least a dozen times, mostly on parole or probation violations related to a handful of more serious crimes.
Three times, he’s been convicted of assault or battery, including when he got into an argument with a homeless woman before sending her to the hospital with a stab wound in 2018.
After being arrested for misdemeanor battery and elder abuse in 2019, James admitted to his mother that he’d hit an old man. He insisted he’d done so only because he thought the man made a pass at him.
Throughout this span, Kimberlie estimates that James has been involuntarily hospitalized or shown up of his own accord at least 10 times, often at her urging. Listening to his voice on the phone, she knows when he’s in trouble.
She can hear the rising anxiety, the creeping paranoia. He’ll say he’s taking his medication, but she knows he’s lying. Meth, he’ll tell her, is a good thing because it keeps him awake when he’s too scared to sleep.
In these moments, Kimberlie says she’s so seized with dread that her body betrays her with bouts of colitis and, on occasion, trips to the hospital. She says she has tried her best to intervene for her troubled son but that her resources can stretch only so far as an in-home hospice worker earning $16 an hour.
Complicating her efforts to help James is the fact that, as an adult with privacy rights, she’s reliant on him to report on how he’s doing and whether he’s seeking help.
“It gets so frustrating,” Kimberlie says, with James being 1,500 miles away from her and his older brother and sister who could provide the support he needs.
In moments of desperation, Kimberlie says she’ll phone hospitals in Long Beach, fearing he might be so deep in crisis that he won’t think to have anyone call her. Sometimes, despite the privacy issues, empathic nurses will take pity and reveal they’re caring for her son.
During the pandemic, Kimberlie’s family paid for a trip for her to California as a birthday gift to see James for the first time in six years. After getting together with a friend in Las Vegas, she planned to drive to Long Beach to search the streets, starting with a Downtown 7-Eleven and neighborhood taco stand that sometimes gave James food.
Kimberlie dreamed of bringing her boy back to her town of Cuero in southeast Texas. At the very least, she hoped to give him a hug and some clothes she’d packed.
But on the drive to Long Beach, she got a call from a hospital and learned James was being held for psychiatric evaluation, a so-called 5150. Because of the risk of COVID-19, Kimberlie would only be allowed to video chat with him.
As she had so many times before, Kimberlie encouraged James after his release to stick with the rehab program he’s required to complete as part of his parole. In her heart, she knew her words would likely make little difference, given James’ history of walking away from sober living homes, getting kicked out after arguments or returning to drugs.
Short on money and needing to get back to work, Kimberlie had to leave before James got out of the hospital. It was a disappointment for both of them, she says; James called her after his release, thinking she was still in town and he could see her.
“Hopefully, I can do it again,” Kimberlie says. “My dream is to get him home and get him right, but I can’t hold too much hope in all that anymore because, literally, I can make myself sick over it.”
Mental health barriers in the lockup
The Los Angeles County jail is perhaps the best example of the strained mental health system.
Roughly half of the jail’s inmates—7,000 out of 14,000—have mental health issues, Tim Belavich, director of correctional health services for the county, told the Board of Supervisors in September. Of those, more than a third have been diagnosed with severe mental illnesses, meaning they have trouble following directions and likely could not live on their own. And the numbers are rising.
Belavich said the Twin Towers jail complex in downtown L.A., where inmates with psychiatric issues are housed, has just 50 designated mental health beds on any given day for the 150 severely ill inmates who need them. Even if a less acute inmate qualifies for community diversion, rather than jail time, there are not enough places to send them. So they remain incarcerated.
“That’s a big part of our frustration,” Belavich told the supervisors. The jail system, he said, is not even close to being equipped to deal with the mental health crisis.
In 2019, the Board of Supervisors launched a pilot program that mandated the addition of 500 beds to the county’s mental health network, from locked residential facilities to 24-hour urgent cares. The goal: to create crucial alternatives to hospitals and jails for the treatment of individuals with mental health issues on the streets and elsewhere.
But during the two-year program, just 239 beds were added at a cost that ran $11.5 million over budget.
Officials say it’s hard to find facilities willing to house people with mental health needs and that it’s not cost-effective for local governments to build or run treatment centers. The federal government currently does not provide Medicaid funding for mental health treatment centers larger than 16 beds, which is one reason California is now applying for a federal waiver to get around that restriction.
Although Long Beach is now trying to ramp up efforts to confront the mental health crisis unfolding on its streets, officials face unique funding and strategic obstacles. Most significantly, the city is unable to fully integrate its homeless services with its mental health efforts.
In what’s called a “continuum of care,” the county coordinates homeless services such as housing assistance with treatment provided through its Department of Mental Health for virtually every city in its jurisdiction, with Long Beach being one of three exceptions.
Long Beach has taken responsibility for its own continuum of care for homelessness services. But it cannot influence mental health care programs or funding that flows directly to the county through insurance billings and California’s Mental Health Services Act. Thus, Long Beach is left at a disadvantage in coordinating the mental health issues of its homeless population.
Long Beach does not, for example, have access to the county Department of Mental Health’s confidential database of services that have been provided to unhoused individuals.
When someone shows up at the Multi-Service Center in West Long Beach, the city’s hub for social services, the staff has no way of knowing whether the individual has been assigned a case manager or psychiatrist, has received any treatment or medication, or what medical or criminal records might show.
Long Beach does receive substantial mental health services from the county. But finding additional money to underwrite the city’s stepped-up mental health efforts—short of diverting funds from other homeless and housing services—has proven challenging, accomplished mainly by cobbling together various one-time grants.
Despite the challenges, Richardson, who is urging the City Council to declare a homelessness state of emergency on Jan. 10, says that if Long Beach could somehow at least make the system easier to navigate for families and stakeholders, “we could save lives.”
A future of only worry and trauma?
The first thing Kimberlie says she heard when she picked up the phone in November was an apology.
“I’m so sorry, Mom. I’m so sorry.”
It was James calling from Twin Towers. He knows how worried his mom gets when she hasn’t heard from him. But by the time the call came, she already was feeling less stressed, a reflection of how narrowed her expectations have become. Now, she mostly just wants to know he’s not hurt or worse.
It had been weeks since Kimberlie saw the video on Facebook of James harassing that frightened man. Almost every day since then, with no word from James, she’d been checking the Sheriff’s Department’s jail logs. Then, in early November, there was his name.
“I was happy about it,” Kimberlie says. “I mean, nobody wants to say they’re happy about their kid being in jail, but I’ve been sleeping a little better since.”
James had been placed in custody on Nov. 7, after Long Beach police were notified that a man was acting strangely at the Pike, pulling on store doors and refusing to leave. An officer discovered that the man, James Burnett, was in violation of his Post-Release Community Supervision for his most recent conviction: throwing a glass at a woman after an argument with her and her friends inside a Pine Avenue bar.
James had failed to keep in touch with his probation officer and get the mental health care he’d been ordered to seek, according to court papers. As a result, he was sentenced to 115 days in jail, although the actual amount of time he’d serve would be less, like most county inmates.
Kimberlie says it took weeks for James to be stabilized behind bars, a fact she learned only after repeatedly cold-calling Twin Towers and waiting on long holds until a nurse finally told her James was back on his medication and participating in group therapy. Soon after, she got the call from him.
James told his mom he was miserable in jail. Among other complaints, he said it felt like bugs were crawling through his beard and hair.
He said his jailers had arranged for a re-entry program to take him directly from lockup to a new living situation. His mom says details were frustratingly scarce. He didn’t know the name of the program or its location.
The last time James was released, there were similar housing promises, Kimberlie says. But in the three days it took to find him a place, James disappeared again.
“It’s just so many times we’ve gone through this,” says Kimberlie, exhausted from it all.
When James is taking his meds and the two can have a mother-son talk, Kimberlie asks if he’s tired of this painful cycle. Don’t you want to get out of it? Mostly, he answers yes, and Kimberlie feels like he’s a little boy again, promising his mom he’ll do better.
But there was one time he answered with a response she says is burned into her memory. “This is what I choose,” Kimberlie remembers him saying. “To live the homeless life.”
In recent days, as James’ release date from Twin Towers was approaching, Kimberlie had talked to him about possibly speaking to the Long Beach Post. Initially agreeing, Kimberlie says he began to waffle after being set free at 12:12 p.m on Thursday.
Kimberlie says James told her shortly after his release that he was provided no re-entry housing, as he said he’d been promised, only a list of resources. He also said he was told to report to a probation office in the South Bay but had no idea how to get there.
For now, he told her, he was heading back to one of his Long Beach hangouts, a 60-foot-long strip of parkland down the center of 14th Street near Downtown, where he said he’d smoke some weed and be up all night because he didn’t have a place to stay.
“He is back on the streets of Long Beach,” Kimberlie said Friday morning in a text to a reporter. “It’s wait and see again.”
For her, that means more uncertainty, more fear, more morning routines.