DOWNTOWN LA — These days Robyn Williams, 55, works as a care-coordinator, helping unhoused people find housing and other essential services. It’s her dream job. She enjoys helping the unhoused community, because she understands something important about how people wind up homeless for so many reasons beyond their control.

“So many people are a paycheck away from being homeless,” said Williams.

For around 20 years, Williams herself was caught in a cycle of addiction, homelessness, and jail. But after finally getting mental and emotional support through the LA County Office of Diversion and Reentry (ODR) housing program, she was determined to get her “life back” and “on the right track.” In that program, Williams was housed and had access to therapists and counselors, but importantly, with no police presence in the housing. Talking to therapists helped Williams identify things she didn’t know she had such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and trauma.

Robyn Williams with certificate of completion for treatment she received under the LA County Office of Diversion and Reentry.
Robyn Williams with certificate of completion for treatment she received under the LA County Office of Diversion and Reentry (Courtesy of Robyn Williams)

“A lot of times people go through trauma and don’t realize it because it’s so natural,” she said.

Many people in LA County jail have suffered from homelessness, mental health issues, and substance abuse. According to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s (LASD) quarterly report (which is unclear about methodology), 40% of people in county jails had been diagnosed with a mental illness as of March this year.

“A jail cell is probably one of the most inappropriate places, that and being on the street, for someone who is in need of mental health services,” said Supervisor Holly Mitchell (District 2) in an interview with LA Public Press.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors created the Office of Diversion and Reentry in 2015 with the stated goal of reducing the number of people in county jails with mental health and substance use disorders. Judges make the choice to send people, depending on their criminal and mental health history, to an ODR program where they have access to clinicians, therapists, and other supportive services to get them back on their feet.

LASD, which oversees the county jails, is not equipped to deal with people suffering from mental health disorders. In 2022 and 2023, a federal judge made a series of rulings and injunctions ordering that the Board and the Sheriff’s Department address the inhumane conditions in the jail’s inmate reception center (IRC), which is a place where people who are arrested are taken to get booked — and from where they are supposed be moved to another facility within 24 hours. However, due to overcrowding in the county jail system, people end up living in the IRC, amid inhumane conditions for days.

In early May, the Board unanimously approved a motion, sponsored by Mitchell, to expand the Office of Diversion and Reentry housing program by a net 1,305 beds, by June 2025. Although significant, even if that many beds were created, they would still not be enough spots or fast enough for people who need to be diverted from jails, especially since the Board has ostensibly committed to closing Men’s Central Jail (MCJ).

Robyn’s story

At 15 years old, Robyn Williams was already drinking heavily and using drugs. It was around this age that she also had her first child. Although she now says she has a great relationship with her four adult children, her substance use at the time pushed them away for years, further triggering her use.

“It was the beginning of a downward spiral that took me decades to come off,” she said.

Williams was in and out of abusive relationships for years. She had grown up thinking these types of relationships were normal because the people around her were doing the same thing. There were instances when a partner would hurt her in public and bystanders would just turn away. “They would not help,” she said. And Williams was often blamed for the abuse she endured, even by her own friends.

“People would tell me well you just need to listen,” said Williams. “But that doesn’t give them a right to beat me.”

In 2020, Williams left her last abusive relationship ever. “That was the last relationship I’ve been in,” she said. One day, she abruptly walked out of the home she shared with her ex-boyfriend, as if the house was on fire, leaving her belongings behind. Not having anywhere else to go, she had to live out of her car.

That same year, Williams was arrested in connection with a robbery she was involved in with a group of other people. She was facing 25 years to life, due to her criminal history. But then, according to Williams, she was offered a spot in the Office of Diversion and Reentry housing program as part of a plea deal.

“They actually gave me an opportunity to start life over,” said Williams.

Robyn Williams and women in her program doing face masks (Courtesy of Robyn Williams)

Conditions in county jails

In 2020, the Board passed a motion to close Men’s Central Jail as part of their “care first, jail last” vision to reduce the number of people jailed and prioritize holistic treatment, according to their official 2021 report on the plan for the closure of the jail. The report outlines actions the county could take to reduce the jail population by 4,500 and effectively close MCJ in 18-24 months. The plan cites the jail’s age and overcrowding, leading to safety issues, as the chief reasons for closure.

However, the jail remains very much in operation, with no clear data for closure — and only haphazard application of the report’s recommendations. The county jails averaged an overall inmate population of 14,056 per day in March of this year, an increase from last year’s average of 13,807, according to LASD’s quarterly report.

“If we are going to close Men’s Central Jail, we have to stop people from going in,” said Mark-Anthony Clayton-Johnson, co-executive director of Dignity and Power Now, an organization that advocates for incarcerated people.

In a statement published in 2022, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) detailed atrocious conditions in the inmate reception center, including dozens of people crammed together sleeping on the concrete floor, as well as extremely unhygienic conditions. Inmates had no access to showers, or working toilets forcing them to defecate in trash cans and urinate on the floor.

The ACLU reported that people with serious mental-illnesses were chained to chairs for days at a time, having to sleep sitting upright. They were also not provided adequate health care including access to medication. Living under these conditions can traumatize anyone and certainly exacerbate existing mental-health conditions.

“The jail system in Los Angeles has a history of being unable to meet people’s basic human needs, and certainly mental health needs,” said Clayton-Johnson.

LASD data shows that in 2015, the year ODR was created, 3,710 people in jails were diagnosed with a mental illness. So far this year, the number has risen to 5,671, according to the LASD quarterly report.

“Our challenge is really finding a permanent, consistent funding source to not only maintain the beds, we have to grow them and expand them,” said Supervisor Mitchell.

Alternatives to incarceration 

There are four different programs under ODR: permanent supportive housing for people who are unhoused and have a serious mental health disorder; maternal health, which diverts pregnant people to housing and supportive services; and misdemeanor incompetent to stand trial (MIST) and felony incompetent to stand trial (FIST). The last two are similar, people who commit a misdemeanor or felony but are considered “incompetent to stand trial,” that is, they are determined to not be able to understand the nature of their proceedings, and can be directed to clinical and medical services to restore competency and allow them to return to court, according to a report by the Stand Trial Solutions Workgroup.

People are placed in the program that best fits their needs through a series of evaluations by ODR and Correctional Health Services staff. The offices screen folks who are in custody on a daily basis looking for people who are “substantially impaired” by their mental health but can be safely treated in the community, according to Ryan Izell, deputy director at the Office of Diversion and Reentry. People could also be referred to a program by their defense attorney, family members, jail clinicians, and other ODR programs, according to a study by the Research and Development (RAND) Corporation.

Staff review a person’s legal case and mental health history to determine if they are likely to respond positively to treatment. If a person is eligible and interested in pursuing that path, staff work with the public defender to send an affidavit (written statement) to court. A judge ultimately determines whether someone is granted into an ODR program, Izell added.

Since the Office of Diversion and Reentry was created, 9,653 people have been diverted from jail and into ODR’s care, according to data from Los Angeles County Health Services. The ODR programs have been successful at treating people with substance abuse and mental health issues and stopping them from a cycle of going back to jail. According to the RAND study, 74% of people who participated in the ODR housing program remained in stable housing after one year and 86% had no new felony convictions.

“The ODR model is a very hopeful approach to care,” said Clayton-Johnson. “We’re talking about expanding a model we already know works.”

Ashley Orona is a journalist and community organizer from South Central Los Angeles. She loves spending time with her family, supporting local businesses, and finding new scenic views around LA.