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Advocates for homeless fear backlash

When Elizabeth Smart was snatched from her home last year, a collective shudder went through the local homeless population, too, and many joined in the search for the missing teenager.

"They were just outraged when this kidnapping occurred," said Pamela Atkinson, a community advocate for the homeless who works with Volunteers of America and other homeless advocates.

"They scurried around and joined in the searches for her. There were posters of her on trees," Atkinson said. "They're very protective of children."

Advocates for homeless people and for the mentally ill worry that a backlash could occur against these populations now that two apparently homeless and mentally ill individuals are being questioned by police in connection with Elizabeth's kidnapping.

Brian David Mitchell, 49, who goes by the name "Emmanuel" on the street, and his wife, Wanda Ilene Barzee, 57, are being held in the Salt Lake County Jail for investigation of aggravated kidnapping.

Atkinson said her experience with homeless people shows them generally not to be dangerous. Some of her homeless friends will even escort her to her car at night to make sure she's safe.

However, Atkinson urges the general public to exercise a reasonable level of caution, especially when it comes to letting a homeless person into your home.

"I have never invited any of my homeless friends to my house, and they have been very respectful and have never tried to find out where I live. I wouldn't hire a homeless person right off the streets, but I might hire someone who has been screened through Job Service or any kind of an agency."

Often it is homeless people who are themselves victimized by crime, ranging from having their meager belongings stolen to murder. Horrific stories have emerged in other cities where homeless men have been pounced on by gangs and beaten or set on fire.

People should indeed be wary of lumping homeless people into the same category as Mitchell, said Vicki Cottrell, executive director of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Utah.

Still, there is reason to be cautious, she said. Having dealt for years with a delusional daughter who is now well, Cottrell knows how altered the thought processes can become.

"I thank God and I am thrilled for the Smarts," Cottrell said. "But if they had understood a little more how delusions work they wouldn't have invited (Mitchell) into the household."

Serious mental illness is often equated with raving and violent behavior, she said. "It can be and is often the opposite."

Cottrell, who has known Mitchell about 20 years and his wife, Wanda, even longer, said Mitchell could be boisterous and aggravating to people he was trying to convert on the street. But he was generally mild-mannered and was almost meek when the Smarts encountered him in November 2001 and hired him to do a half day's roofing at their home.

"Even though it might seem like the kindest act in the world to reach out this way, it's just as compassionate to reach out and give them options that will help them get better," she said.

Jeff St. Romain, president and CEO of Volunteers of America Utah, suggests people not give cash to panhandlers, who often are not homeless. "If people need services, there are services in the community. They can get them from us or other agencies."

As far as encountering anyone on the streets who is homeless, "you have to use common sense with anyone you pass on the streets," St. Romain said. "There's no reason to be scared of homeless people any more than any other stranger on the streets."

Cottrell said people should be aware that people cannot use logic with homeless who are mentally ill or assume they understand or appreciate an offer for help. "They can be thinking things we can't even comprehend."

The homeless who are mentally ill are monitored by treatment providers, both on the street and in various clinics around the city and state, and by police. Mitchell was known by health-care providers at Valley Mental Health who advised him about treatment options often, but he always and emphatically refused.

Under Utah law, treatment can only be administered involuntarily if someone poses a substantial physical danger to himself or others.

The balance is delicate between a person's civil rights and assessing possible danger to society, said Ted Wander, medical director of adult services at Valley Mental Health, noting that the Legislature just passed a bill to help fine-tune that balance.

"But no law can get that precisely correct," Wander said. "No matter how well that law is written, there will always be people on the fringes, and we can just hope those folks will come to our attention and get into treatment."