Larry Hogue, the psychiatrically disabled, drug-addicted "Wild Man of West 96th Street," recently disappeared for seven weeks from the halfway house where he'd been living and receiving antipsychotic medication. (He eventually turned up in Connecticut, where a counselor persuaded him to enter voluntarily Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens.) A spokesman for the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene said Hogue, as an outpatient, could choose to stop his treatment at any time.
The residents of West 96th Street are understandably frustrated. For seven years Hogue lived on their street and slept in their doorways. With cocaine addiction fueling his untreated psychosis, and with $3,000 a month from his veteran's pension keeping him afloat, Hogue set fires beneath cars, masturbated in front of children, threatened passersby, and once pushed a schoolgirl into the path of a moving truck. Though the Department of Mental Hygiene hospitalized Hogue more than 30 times, he'd soon be back on the street after each short hospital stay. When Hogue finally entered a long-term treatment program under hospital supervision in 1992, the department promised to notify West 96th Street residents if he ever left. It broke its promise, however, provoking an exasperated Lisa Lehr, a 96th Street leader, to complain, "The system is crazier than he is."
She's right. The system is crazy, for two reasons. First, New York is one of only 13 states without an outpatient commitment law. Under such laws, individuals with schizophrenia or manic-depression who act dangerously must take their prescribed medications. If they don't, they'll quickly find themselves returned to the hospital.
Second, across the country, we still find a refusal to confront the failure of deinstitutionalization. The mentally ill crowd our sidewalks and shelters, our jails and prisons, our public libraries and subways. And they pose a danger to more than themselves: the untreated mentally ill kill nearly 1,000 people in the United States every year.
We'd find a solution faster if we could house Larry Hogue right next to the governor's mansion. Or we could place discharged patients in group homes next door to state legislators or Department of Mental Hygiene officials. Suddenly, we'd see legislatures falling over themselves to pass outpatient commitment laws. The mentally ill would get the treatment they desperately need, and our communities would be that much safer.