South Lake Tahoe Warm Room consequences (opinion)
I would like to preface this by saying these are my personal observations only and do not represent the views of any institution or organization. I have worked as an emergency physician at Barton since 1979. Every year I have witnessed the seasonal ebb and flow of homeless people in South Lake Tahoe. They drift into town when the weather gets nice, live in the woods and by the river, become distressed when the snow falls, and leave in the winter. The total number of homeless with their attendant alcohol, drug, mental health, and other social issues have gradually increased, but generally police, fire / ambulance, and the hospital were able to provide the needed services without adversely affecting care of rest of the community.
In the last year, this changed. Police, Fire, and Emergency Department staff noticed it. It is visible on the street. There is a marked increase in the number of the homeless, because a substantial number wintered over. Now, rooms are tied up in the Emergency Department by these people being treated acutely and being held for psychiatric placement. Because of this, waiting times for everyone else are increasing. Ambulance and police are running numerous calls on these folks, placing subsequent calls on hold. We can expect this trend to continue.
I am asked on a frequent basis by providers and members of the community to say something about the Warm Room. No one wants to be the first person to speak up and get hammered in the paper and elsewhere for being an uncaring redneck. I am a liberal Democrat. I am happy to provide any needed services to anyone who presents without regard to ability to pay or whether or not they are a productive member of society. And I am quite aware that there will be splatter from making this statement. But I care very much about our town, and I am not quite sure I like the direction it has turned.
I have no intention of being a spokesperson for this issue. But I have seen numerous examples this year including assaults on a teen-aged girl, grab and run theft from the Hospital cafeteria, and arson by some of our well-known homeless this year that are really unprecedented. So I will take the hit and be the first one to at least bring the issue up for discussion as to whether or not South Lake Tahoe is becoming a magnet for the homeless. These people with their drug, alcohol, mental health, and criminal justice issues are beginning to overwhelm the limited local resources.
Citizens of South Lake Tahoe need to make informed choices, need to know that there are consequences of their actions, and accept those consequences. If the Warm Room is to be continued, then there also needs to concomitant increases in mental health, police, and fire department services. And we will need more space in the Emergency Department at Barton.
Steven D. Leman, M.D., works for Barton Health and lives in South Lake Tahoe.