A reader writes:
The reader's dating the deinstitutionalization movement to the Reagan years was an understandable error, but an error all the same. In the mid-1970s, I worked for the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation as part of a wave of idealistic young administrators who implemented the first round of laws that led to deinstitutionalization.
These laws evolved directly from the civil rights and anti-war movements, and many of the activists like me who lead this fight had grown up in this era. Deinstitutionalization was also fueled to some degree by the counterculture's acceptance of nonstandard views of reality -- think R. D. Laing -- and the sense that people who weren't "normal" had a right to live freely in society.
The Reagan years were the rocky shoal on which these visions crashed. Running institutions became very expensive once higher staffing and treatment levels were mandated by law, and community based treatment initially seemed both cheaper and more humane. Of course, both institutions and community programs proved highly vulnerable to the budget cutting encouraged by supply siders. The mentally ill and developmentally disabled usually have neither economic nor political power, so they are more vulnerable than most to the Calvinism and Social Darwinism that are the shadow side of American Conservatism.
When I see homeless people on the streets here in Detroit, I often think of the residents I knew in the institutions in Ohio. I am not wise enough to tell you whether they are better off now than they were before. The institutions of the 1960s were often dreadful places. The streets seem just as dreadful, in a different way.