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Everyone around him saw this coming.

No one managed to stop it.

For years, family members of James Mark Rippee—a blind, homeless Vacaville man with a traumatic brain injury and paranoid schizophrenia—have fought to get him into treatment. He resisted. And official after official cited California’s involuntary-treatment laws in explaining to his family why there was nothing they could do.

On the evening of Feb. 12, Rippee stepped off the center divide of a dimly lit Vacaville street into the path of an oncoming vehicle, police say. Now he’s facing multiple surgeries, said his sister Linda Privatte—for a fractured skull, a brain bleed, a shattered elbow, a dislocated shoulder and a crushed leg.

Like many other families, Rippee’s sisters place much of the blame on the mental health implications of a 1967 state law, Lanterman-Petris-Short. It imposed specific timeframes for involuntary confinement and limited involuntary holds to those deemed a danger to themselves or others, or those gravely disabled.

But families like Rippee’s are ratcheting up the pressure to change the controversial law—and policymakers seem to be listening. Gov. Gavin Newsom, in his State of the State address, said: “Clearly it’s time to respond to the concerns of experts who argue that thresholds for conservatorships are too high and need to be revisited.” 

After watching the speech, Rippee’s sisters aren’t yet convinced. They’ve been circulating a petition begging the governor to pay attention to Rippee’s situation and act to help him.

“It’s easy to stand up and say what needs to happen,” Privatte said. “What is he really going to do about it? What’s the plan? I watched it twice, and I didn’t hear one.”

An audit of Lanterman-Petris-Short is due out later this spring, and could suggest a possible path forward for the state. The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment or provide any details about what exactly he would do to respond to change the rules surrounding involuntary treatment of people with mental illness. While the governor has not yet outlined a specific plan for the state, he did sign a bill to pilot expanded conservatorships in San Francisco.

Privatte and her twin sister, Catherine Hanson, recognize that making it easier to conserve people isn’t a simple fix, either. Disability-rights advocates are concerned that involuntary treatment is ineffective and jeopardizes people’s civil rights. County public guardians say they are overwhelmed with an influx of new clients, while the number of facilities available to treat them shrinks.

Even if Rippee were to be conserved, very few facilities in the state accept patients with traumatic brain injuries, Gerald Huber, the county’s director of Health and Social Services, said in an interview late last year.

Rippee himself, when I found him huddled at the edge of a Vallejo strip mall last year, told me he wants to live in a home with a shower and someone to care for him. But not a locked facility, he emphasized.

“To leave a blind man outside, you know, I just figured the county could do better than that,” he said.

This was not the first time Rippee has wandered into traffic. People who know his family regularly reach out to tell them they have pulled him out of danger, or have themselves almost hit him. In September, he was struck by a car and ended up hospitalized with a brain abscess. But after a couple weeks, his sisters said, the hospital discharged him to a board-and-care. Soon after that, he returned to the streets.

Lt. Mark Donaldson, of the Vacaville Police Department, said his officers regularly respond to calls about Rippee stepping into traffic.

“You have to go out and deal with these same people over and over again, and you know what the end result is going to be, because there’s no place to take them,” he said. 

“I got into this job to help people above all else, and we like to be problem-solvers, and when you simply don’t have the tools to solve these problems, it’s devastating,” he said. “It’s so frustrating. Your heart hurts for him and his family. There simply is no place; there’s nothing we can do.”

Privatte says she doesn’t blame the driver who struck her brother earlier this month.

“I just blame the whole situation of him still being out there,” Privatte said. “Sometimes I’m just amazed at how he does survive.”

She and Hanson say their brother has refused necessary medical treatments while in the hospital, including blood transfusions.

Rippee’s sisters have been fighting to get him into involuntary treatment for years. They testified on behalf of state legislation that sought to redefine “gravely disabled” to include those who don’t seek needed medical treatment. It failed. They attended Solano County Board of Supervisors meetings. They asked the police for welfare checks. They sent thousands of emails, and administer a Facebook group about their brother’s situation, which currently has more than 2,500 members.

“What we’re doing is unacceptable,” Solano County Supervisor Skip Thomson told Privatte as she wept during a board of supervisors meeting in 2018. Thomson declined to comment on Rippee’s most recent accident.

“I’ve struggled with this for the five years I’ve been here,” Huber, the county’s director of Health and Social Services, said last year. “The street is not an appropriate place for him to live.”

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

Declaring that moral persuasion and economic incentives aren’t working to bring in people from the sidewalks, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s task force on homelessness earlier this week called for a “legally enforceable mandate” that would force municipalities and the state to house the growing number of homeless Californians. 

The proposal, which came as Newsom kicked off a weeklong tour of the state aimed at drawing attention to the homelessness crisis, urged the Legislature to put a measure on the November ballot that would force California cities and counties to take steps to provide housing for the more than 150,000 Californians who lack it—or face legal action.

Such a measure would require a two-thirds vote of both legislative houses to be brought to voters. California law does not currently penalize the state or local governments for failing to reduce their homeless populations, nor does it force them to make housing sufficiently available to people without it.

But Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who co-chair the governor’s 13-member Council of Regional Homeless Advisors, have been advocating for some sort of enforceable “right” to sleep indoors since the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit struck down laws against homeless camping. That ruling, which the U.S. Supreme Court let stand just last month, dramatically limited cities’ enforcement options, finding it to be cruel and unusual punishment to prosecute people for sleeping on the street if sufficient shelter isn’t available.

“California mandates free public education for all of its children and subsidized health insurance for its low-income residents. It requires its subdivisions to provide services to people with developmental disabilities and foster children,” the commission wrote in a letter signed by both elected officials. “Yet everything that state, county and city governments do to alleviate this crisis is voluntary. There is no mandate to ensure people can live indoors, no legal accountability for failing to do so, no enforceable housing production standard and no requirement to consolidate and coordinate funding streams across jurisdictions. The results speak for themselves.”

The council’s recommendation stops short of Steinberg’s and Ridley-Thomas’ initial call for a “right to shelter,” which would not only have required cities to provide immediate beds, but also obligated people experiencing homelessness to come inside. But it adds momentum to the strategy of elevating litigation as a tool to accomplish what compassion and money haven’t been able to do.

Newsom, visiting a homelessness program in Nevada County, said Monday he “would lean in the direction” of speedily deploying a legal “obligation” to supply sufficient services and housing, adding that “a number of cities and counties” have volunteered to do demonstration projects over the next several months, “not the next few years.” (Ridley-Thomas later said he would propose such a pilot in Los Angeles County this week.)

“I broadly have been encouraging this debate about obligations,” the governor said, adding that “there’s a distinction between rights and obligations.”

Without elaborating on that distinction, he seconded the task force’s point that many of the state’s responsibilities stem from legal mandates: “We do it in almost every other respect,” Newsom said. “On this issue, we don’t, and I think that’s missing. The question is how do you do it. … This is not black and white. This is tough stuff.”

Municipalities made it clear they would need more clarification.

“A legally enforceable mandate can only work with clarity of who’s obligated to do what, and what new sustainable resources will fund it; that’s the ticket for clear expectations and accountability,” said Graham Knaus, executive director of the California State Association of Counties, in a statement.

Steinberg, meanwhile, called Monday’s proposal an improvement on the original “right to shelter” concept, saying a mandate by any name would still have the force of law. The point, the mayor said, is to give the courts a legal “last resort” to address pleas to supersede political gridlock, just as federal laws have in the past armed judges to combat other social crises.

“It’s analogous to desegregation,” Steinberg said.

The task force’s proposal would let a “designated public official” sue the government for not doing enough to offer emergency and permanent housing to the homeless. A judge could then intervene to force a city to approve an emergency shelter, for example, or redirect budget funds to homelessness services.

The proposal, however, so far lacks specifics on how taxpayers would pay for such a mandate. The letter released by the task force, which includes local elected officials from large and small cities, states that “more state resources will undoubtedly be required,” but includes no estimate.

State and local governments in recent years have poured billions into combating homelessness, only to watch the problem worsen as ever-rising rents drive Californians to the streets faster than they can be re-housed. On Friday, for the second straight year, Newsom proposed more than $1 billion in new state funds to fight homelessness, calling it “the issue that defines our times” in California. But the state’s “point-in-time” homeless count jumped 17 percent between 2018 and last year.

San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, a task force member, said leverage is needed.

“We do the things we are required to do first … then for everything else, we try very hard,” said Fletcher. “Absent a legally enforceable obligation, I believe people will continue to try very hard.”

But a legal mandate would arm jurisdictions to tackle “the underlying problem, which is poverty,” rather than appease communities with shelter beds, he said.


Putting the Onus on Government to Provide Housing

Steinberg and Ridley-Thomas floated the idea of a statewide “right to shelter” law last year. Spurred by decades-old litigation, New York state has a “right to shelter” policy that makes its state and local governments legally liable for having emergency shelter beds available for every unhoused person. 

While many credit “right to shelter” for New York’s success in reducing the number of people sleeping on the streets, Newsom and advocates for the homeless have balked at the idea. Some advocates fear it would divert finite funding from permanent supportive housing, which experts say is a more long-term, albeit expensive solution; others worry about cost and potential civil-liberties violations that might arise from requiring a homeless person to accept shelter if it’s available.

“The reason why right to shelter is a mistake is because it diverts resources from the solution, which is housing, not shelter,” said Sharon Rapport, California policy director for the Corporation for Supportive Housing and a member of the task force.

Under the policy proposed by the task force, a local government would be required to develop a plan to house the vast majority of its homeless people within “an aggressive but reasonable period of time.” “Reasonable” is not defined in the letter.

However, Steinberg said that, in the case of Sacramento, “aggressive but reasonable” might mean a 1,500-person annual reduction in the city’s 5,500-plus homeless population, and housing the “the vast majority” within five years.

Advocates on the homelessness issue said more specifics are needed, but applauded the task force’s recommendations as a philosophical pushback, at least, against efforts to criminalize living on the streets.

“Any kind of policies that are promoting locking up people or warehousing people or punishing people for being homeless, the council is saying those policies have been very ineffective in the past,” said Rapport.

The city of Bakersfield recently proposed ramping up enforcement of low-level drug offenses to get people off the streets there, and advocates have expressed concern that the Trump administration’s threats to do something about homelessness in California may involve heavier use of law enforcement.


A Homelessness Czar, but Little on Conservatorships

The task force also called for a single point person on homelessness, a Newsom campaign promise that devolved in his first year into confusion over who, at any given point, was his “homelessness czar.”

Various administration members, including Steinberg and Ridley-Thomas, state Secretary of Health and Human Services Mark Ghaly, and adviser Jason Elliott, have filled the role—so many that last week, Newsom headed off press questions by declaring tartly, “You want to know who’s the homeless czar? I’m the homeless czar in the state of California.”

But the issue of who is actually overseeing the state’s disparate homelessness initiatives—across multiple bureaucracies from prisons to health care—is still pressing, at least according to the homelessness task force. One of their key recommendations would “create a single point of authority of homelessness in state government,” suggesting a high-level official that reports directly to Newsom. Another calls for a comprehensive accounting of existing funding for homelessness, housing, mental health and substance-abuse treatment.

Still other recommendations have already been incorporated into Newsom’s proposed homelessness budget, including a “flexible fund” that service providers can tap for uses from emergency rental assistance to building shelters. The task force also proposed revamping the state’s health-insurance program to draw down more federal dollars for homelessness-related services, a key pillar of the strategy Newsom unveiled last week. Doing so would require a waiver from the federal government.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, a member of the task force, said that a Medi-Cal reform proposal is key to the the blueprint.

“Housing is health,” she said. “And to recognize that health dollars should appropriately be used to support housing is a very important part of our recommendations.”

More-controversial proposals included an executive order expanding the state’s new rent-gouging law to cover more households, and legislation exempting from environmental review any new housing project for people at risk of homelessness.

California has strict laws that make it difficult to detain mentally ill people against their will for a prolonged period of time. Families of homeless loved ones struggling with schizophrenia or other disorders often blame the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, a late 1960’s law intended to curb the overuse of asylums, for precluding necessary care. New York’s commitment laws are less stringent.

While Newsom talked vaguely of reforming the law last week, such reforms are conspicuously absent from the task force’s report.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics. 

Published in Local Issues

The sightings of James Mark Rippee are all over his sisters’ Facebook account.

Someone spotted him sleeping by a furniture store in Vallejo. Someone walked him to a gas station for coffee. Someone prayed for him at Nation’s Giant Hamburgers.

Rippee, 56, developed schizophrenia after a horrific motorcycle accident more than three decades ago caused a traumatic brain injury and the loss of his eyesight. His delusions range from being an alien, to getting chased by the KKK, to being prevented from collecting his lottery winnings, his sisters say.

In September, he stepped into traffic and was hit by a car, his sisters say; he then developed a brain abscess. After weeks in the hospital and a board-and-care, he walked out. His 62-year-old twin sisters—Catherine Hanson and Linda Privatte—weren’t alerted.

Now they couldn’t find him.

Complicating things further: Hanson is bedridden with blood cancer; Privatte is legally blind and cannot drive. They’ve come to depend on a Facebook community, “Mark of Vacaville,” to be their “eyes and ears” on their brother’s situation.

The existence of the 2,000-plus member group is at once a moving testament to a community’s compassion, and an indictment of a system that often leaves the most vulnerable to fend for themselves.

Why do people as sick as James Mark Rippee sleep on our streets? Some blame laws that prioritize civil rights over forced treatment; others point to an under-resourced and uneven mental-health system that has failed to provide people like Rippee with long-promised care.

Everyone struggles with the same underlying question: What should be done?

“When we allow people to deteriorate on the streets, or interface with law enforcement that leads to incarceration, what are we doing?” asks Dr. Jonathan Sherin, director of the Los Angeles Department of Mental Health. “We’ve lost our compass.”

State lawmakers are watching a controversial new pilot program to expand forced treatment in San Francisco.

In the meantime, families watch in desperation as loved ones cycle between homelessness, emergency rooms and jail cells. Short courses of medication may lead to the quieting of voices, which, in turn, leads to a release to the streets. Often, as in James Mark Rippee’s case, the family is simultaneously shut out of the conversation and blamed for abandonment.

Some of these families are aware of the downsides of involuntary treatment, the miserable side effects of psychiatric medications, and the critical shortage of inpatient facilities. They recognize that conservatorship—in which a court-appointed conservator manages another person’s living situation, medical decisions and mental health treatment—is no panacea, and should be a last resort.

James Mark Rippee himself puts it this way: “I don’t need to be in a locked-up facility. It was like I was a hostage.”

In recent years, Rippee’s twin sisters—Hanson, the red-headed warrior, Privatte, the blonde diplomat—have redoubled their decades-long effort to get him help. They worry their own health problems might someday leave no one to fight for him.

“He is the worst-case scenario of anybody being so vulnerable on the streets,” Hanson said. “Every winter we wonder: Is this going to be the year that he dies?”


In 1967, a law passed that transformed the treatment of people with mental illness in California.

Until then, it had been fairly easy for a family member to call police to force someone into mental health treatment. Conditions in the state hospitals were frequently abhorrent: Patients wore gunny sacks, sometimes bathed just once a week, and were subjected to lobotomies and electric-shock treatments. Too often, people were locked away for life.

Republican Assemblyman Frank Lanterman and Democratic Sens. Nicholas Petris and Alan Short proposed a radical overhaul, which Gov. Ronald Reagan signed into law. When the Lanterman-Petris-Short law took effect a few years later, it established strict criteria for involuntary treatment. It imposed specific timeframes for involuntary confinement and limited involuntary holds to those deemed a danger to themselves or others, or gravely disabled. This included the 72-hour hold that police term a 5150.

But within a few decades, Sen. Petris noticed growing numbers of people with serious mental illnesses appearing on the streets and in jails.

In a 1989 oral history, Petris lamented that while the law had promised funding to treat people with mental illness in the community, Gov. Reagan diverted tens of millions allocated back to the state general fund.

“That took the guts right out of this state money for local treatment,” Petris said. “It emptied out the hospitals, but there was no follow-up treatment. … In this overemphasis to get away from this tyrannical and oppressive system … of incarcerating people so easily, we went overboard the other way.”

Even when funding was available, “Not In My Back Yard” resistance also made it challenging to locate residential and community treatment facilities. In the half-century since, much of the debate about helping people like Rippee has centered on the Lanterman-Petris-Short law. The state auditor is currently examining it; a report is anticipated this spring.

In recent years, several bills in the Legislature have been proposed to modify the law, focusing on redefining the term “gravely disabled.” Rippee’s sisters petitioned and testified last year on behalf of a bill that sought to define “gravely disabled” to include not just those who can’t provide for their own food, clothing and shelter, but also those who don’t seek needed medical treatment. It failed, in part because opponents considered it ineffective and dangerously expansive.

More than 5,000 people in the state were on permanent conservatorships, and close to 2,000 were on temporary conservatorships, as of 2016-2017, according to data collected by the Department of Health Care Services. The data is incomplete; Scarlet Hughes, executive director of the California State Association of Public Administrators, Public Guardians and Public Conservators, calls it “extremely inaccurate.” 

Last year lawmakers agreed to create a narrow 5-year pilot program that makes it easier for three counties (San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego) to conserve homeless individuals with serious mental illnesses or substance-abuse disorders. The program allows courts to conserve individuals who have been placed under a 72-hour psychiatric hold at least eight times in a year. A second law, passed this year, expanded the rules to allow 50 to 100 more people in San Francisco to be placed under conservatorship.

Civil-rights advocates have raised serious concerns: In 2018, Susan Mizner, the disability rights program director for the ACLU, described conservatorship as “the biggest deprivation of civil rights aside from the death penalty” and said the law would incentivize police to repeatedly detain homeless individuals.

So far, only San Francisco has adopted it. That reflects another reality: Different counties have different rules. Even without the pilot program, depending on where you live, public defenders, judges, public guardians and others have different interpretations of the law.

“It varies from county to county, it varies within counties,” said Randall Hagar, government relations director for the California Psychiatric Association. “What is ‘gravely disabled’ here may not be considered ‘gravely disabled’ there.”

Because counties must use local funds to pay high placement costs—and because not all counties have the same types of services available—variations are a significant concern.

Disability rights advocates insist that maintaining the standards outlined by Lanterman-Petris-Short is essential to protect people’s civil rights. Most people with serious mental illnesses aren’t refusing help, they say; appropriate help just isn’t available.

Lynn Rivas, associate director of Oakland-based Peers Envisioning and Engaging in Recovery Services, understands that families feel desperate. She knew a woman with paranoid schizophrenia who lived on the streets of Richmond. Mental-health workers tried repeatedly, but couldn’t get her to come inside.

Even though “it breaks my heart,” Rivas said, she’s willing to live with that consequence. “I think involuntary imprisonment is worse,” she said.

Heather, a program coordinator at the organization, has herself experienced involuntary treatment. In the hospital, she said, everything was taken from her, and her entire schedule revolved around medication.

“I think it’s just really cold the way they treat you,” she said. “It’s like you have a disease. … They treat you like you’re not a human being.”

Once she stabilized, she said, the hospital discharged her back to the streets, without addressing her underlying issues. The experience not only didn’t help her, she said; it made her afraid to seek help.

Some worry that public dismay about the current homelessness crisis will encourage lawmakers to strip people of their rights.

“It’s still political failures that are trying to be masked with solutions that may decrease the visibility of individuals on the street,” said Curtis Child, director of legislation at Disability Rights California. He also compares the situation of people with mental illness to that of people with developmental disabilities. For the latter group, deinstitutionalization was accompanied by the creation of regional centers, he said, “in which everyone gets a plan, everyone gets a worker.

“With mental illness, we did nothing.”

For Child, and many other advocates, the solution is not more conservatorship; it’s creating affordable housing and more robust mental health services.

“The volume of individuals who are entering homelessness on a given day is overwhelming all of our systems,” said Michelle Cabrera, executive director of the County Behavioral Health Directors Association of California. “We’ve got a serious problem on our hands.”

Dr. Amy Barnhorst, vice chair of community and hospital services for the UC Davis Department of Psychiatry, agrees that the focus should be on building out the mental-health system, not changing the law.

“It’s like cutting more doors into an empty building,” she said. “There’s not the services there. We don’t have the workforce. We don’t have the treatments. We don’t have the infrastructure.”

Even if a change in law permitted more people to be conserved, a shortage of placements and “a gross lack of funding” for county programs means there would be nowhere to send many of them, said Hughes, of the California State Association of Public Administrators, Public Guardians and Public Conservators. Earlier this year, a state budget proposal to increase the amount of funding for public guardians by 35 percent—or $68 million—failed.

County conservators receive no direct state funding, and in the past five years have received a huge influx in clients diverted from the criminal-justice system, Hughes said. Some counties went from five referrals a month to 30 or 40, she said.

“They are drowning,” she said.

Simultaneously, the number of facilities that can take them is shrinking, said Chris Koper, a legislative analyst for the organization. At one point, she said, she and some friends started listing the facilities in that county that had shut down. They stopped when they got to 35, she said: “It was too depressing.”

That leaves many conservatees in a “placement pending” status, stuck in jails or hospitals. In some cases, conservators have resorted to having staff members care for people with mental illness in hotel rooms rather than leave an individual on the streets, she said.

Most state hospital beds are now reserved for people in the criminal-justice system. Inmates with mental illness can wait in limbo for months or even years in county jails before a bed opens up. Five years ago, an average of 343 inmates with mental illness were awaiting placement. Last year, the average was 819.

“The easiest legislative fix is to expand conservatorship,” Koper said. “It then will appear that the Legislature is trying to do something. But as is often the case with social problems, the wound is so much deeper than that. And the wound will require a lot of money.”

As San Francisco has assumed new authority to place people under conservatorships, the San Francisco Chronicle found a backlog. In a locked ward at San Francisco General Hospital, individuals who were conserved were waiting four months for placement in Napa State Hospital, and even longer for a residential facility.

A woman who answered the phone at the public guardian’s office in Solano County, where Rippee lives, said she didn’t have time or permission to talk, repeating several times, “We’re extremely short-staffed.”

Gerald Huber, the county’s director of Health and Social Services, noted that even if Rippee were to be conserved, there are very few facilities in the state that accept people with traumatic brain injuries—and they are always full with waitlists.

Rippee’s sisters are aware.

“If they tell him, ‘Mark, you’re conserved’—” Privatte began.

“—where are they going to put him?” Hanson concluded. “There’s no place.”


The events of June 21, 1987, are seared in the minds of Rippee’s twin sisters:

Rippee had purchased a Harley-Davidson just 10 days earlier, but he was already talking about selling it. With his slight frame, the big bike felt unwieldy.

The family had gathered for a Father’s Day barbecue in Vacaville. Rippee, 24, was optimistic about a budding career in construction. He was popular with girls and never went anywhere without his guitar.

That evening, he took off down a country road toward Hanson’s house. A car swerved into his lane. Trying to avoid it, Rippee steered off the road into a dark field.

A neighbor heard the crash. Officers searched for an hour, following the moans, before discovering a gruesome scene: Rippee had smashed into an antique grain harvester. The impact had ripped his eyes from their sockets, knocked out his teeth, split his head open and strewn brain matter on the ground. Paramedics told the family they were so sure he was dead that they initially didn’t turn on the siren.

His sisters rushed to the hospital, where a team of surgeons was attempting to piece their brother’s brain and body back together. Their father was overwhelmed, Hanson said, and asked her to take over medical decision-making.

After Rippee stabilized, a neurosurgeon warned the family it would take a few years for him to recover from the brain injury. Then, at some point, his mental health would decline. The doctor recommended Rippee be transported to a state rehabilitation facility where he might need to spend his entire life, his sisters said.

Instead, Hanson said, their father grabbed the papers giving her legal decision-making over her brother’s care and shredded them. His only son, he insisted, was coming home.

“This is how we lost complete control,” she said.

Under his mother’s care, Rippee did heal somewhat, his sisters said. He was completely blind, had severe damage to his frontal lobe and was suicidal. But, for a time, he was able to take computer classes.

Then the delusions crept in, his sisters say. He heard voices in the air conditioner. He tried to jump out of a car on a freeway overpass, nearly pulling Privatte with him. 

Still, for years, Rippee lived with his family. For a while, Privatte housed her brother in a 60-foot trailer adjacent to her house. Neighbor Chris Plowman, at the time a volunteer firefighter, remembers seeing smoke coming from the trailer one morning and hearing Privatte scream, “Save my brother! Save my brother!”

Plowman kicked in the door and ran through the trailer, looking for Rippee. He wasn’t inside. The trailer burned to the ground.

Then Rippee threatened to kill his mother with an ax, according to his sisters, who say the family felt it was no longer safe to have him live with them. But, gradually, he ran out of other options. Local motels refused to rent to him, his sister said.

Karen Newton, an office assistant with Solano County, first met Rippee in front of the county building where she worked; he was sleeping on a strip of cardboard. She bought him taquitos, chocolate milk and clean clothes. Newton, whose own son has schizophrenia and is currently in Napa State Hospital, was disturbed by the frequent assaults she saw against Rippee, including a bad beating that left him swollen.

“The things I’ve seen in the last year have been horrifying,” she said.

In the past 15 years, Vacaville police say they have arrested Rippee 25 times, charging him with unlawful camping and public intoxication.

Sgt. Aaron Dahl, who supervises the community response unit for Vacaville Police, says he wants people like Rippee to stay inside, take medications and get help, but “that’s not the reality of how things work.”

“I wish I had a magic wand that could go help everybody,” he said. “And it’s very hard, because there’s not an easy answer for everybody. There’s just not.”

In early 2018, Privatte said her daughter saw members of a Solano County community Facebook site criticizing their family for abandoning Rippee.

The twins intensified their efforts to help their brother.

“The law has stopped Mark from getting treatment,” Privatte said. “The law. Not us.”

On April 24, 2018, Privatte told the Solano County Board of Supervisors that her brother had attempted suicide more than 20 times, and that other people beat and robbed him regularly.

“It’s not because I want to lock my brother up and be done with him,” she said, crying. “It’s because I want him to be safe.”

“What can we do to help?” asked Supervisor Skip Thomson. “Because what we’re doing is unacceptable.”

Privatte showed up repeatedly to beg the board for help. Last spring, she received an email from Thomson’s office on behalf of the county, explaining that her brother could not be conserved, in part because each time he was placed on an involuntary hold, he stabilized to the point that he legally had to be released.

“This is not a situation that we have ignored nor that we condone,” the letter said. “Simply the law requires stringent standards to impose conservatorships—standards that so far we cannot meet.”

Huber, the director of Health and Social Services, said that “many, many, many different agencies” have interacted with Rippee over the years, and the county has made—and continues to make—efforts to provide treatment. 

“I’ve struggled with this for the five years I’ve been here,” he said. “The street is not an appropriate place for him to live.”

The county this year implemented Laura’s Law, a 2002 state law which allows for court-ordered outpatient treatment. A few weeks ago, Rippee’s mother applied for it on her son’s behalf. But the program doesn’t serve someone with a traumatic brain injury, Huber said.


On Sept. 27, someone posted a picture of Rippee on the Facebook group. His head looked swollen; his sisters recognized symptoms of a brain abscess.

Privatte convinced her brother to go with her to the hospital, where he had surgery the next morning. After two weeks, the hospital transferred him to a Suisun City board-and-care. In late October, he returned to the streets.

That same week, dozens of mental-health leaders from around the state gathered in Sacramento to talk about the future of Lanterman-Petris-Short. They discussed how counties lack the resources to build out a continuum of care.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg asked his colleagues if the debate around involuntary treatment might be reframed to insist that people have both a right—and an obligation—to come indoors. That would mean that, before the state could compel people to come indoors, they would have to have safe, appropriate placements to offer them.

“Our North Star needs to be to end this horrific situation,” he said.

A few weeks later, I found Rippee at a Vallejo strip mall, asleep on a patch of concrete littered with dirty socks and desiccated orange peels. His head rested on a blue IKEA bag, which held a pale green fleece blanket studded with burrs.

After Rippee woke up, he requested a coffee the way he likes it—a lot of sugar, a little coffee. He was friendly and talkative, his facts smoothly interwoven with delusions. He talked about the beauty of classical music. He recalled delivering pies for his parents’ business. Then he toggled to concerns about the KKK chasing him: “I’m trying to stay ahead of those guys,” he said.

Ultimately, Rippee said, he wants home with a shower and someone to care for him. He doesn’t want to be in a locked facility, but he does wish he could live inside.

“At night, it gets cold,” he said. “I just sit there and shake.

“To leave a blind man outside, you know, I just figured the county could do better than that,” he continued. “They’re not supposed to leave me outside. The United States of America is nice enough. They’re not supposed to let this happen.”

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Published in Local Issues