‘A fate worse than death’
OCEANSIDE — She’d expected the phone call for months, even years now, steeling herself for it, prepared for it as best a mother could. She anticipated the grief, pain, and the waves of anguish that would follow.
But when Rebecca Reinig finally got the phone call on October 6, 2021, that her youngest son, 30-year-old Joseph Reinig, had been found dead in a cluster of bushes near a hillside in Oceanside, she admits she was surprised by something else that she felt after hearing the news — relief.
Rebecca had feared Joseph’s schizoaffective disorder — a brain disease that drove him to the streets and kept him from seeking help, that separated him from his family, and kept him living in constant states of delusion, paranoia and occasionally rage — would one day drive him to commit murder during one of his psychotic states.
“I’m honestly so grateful that he didn’t kill someone in some psychotic rage, instead of him dying,” she said.
Rebecca also expressed that she felt relief that Joseph was at peace and no longer living in misery on the city streets.
“We miss him so much but he’s no longer in a living hell, and he lived in a living hell,” Rebecca said. “It’s devastating to think that death really is the best outcome for someone like him, that living on the streets is a fate worse than death — and when I say worse, I say worse with an underline.”
‘Loving and wonderful’
When Joseph was a young boy, Rebecca recalls how he would walk down to a stretch of the ocean near the family’s home in Oceanside and feed the homeless gathered around the beach.
“He’d go feed them with sandwiches, he’d talk to them, he’d give them popsicles,” she said. It was just who Joseph was, both in childhood and adulthood—simple-minded but caring, loving, and innocent.
“He liked most people, he was wonderfully different, he danced to the beat of a drummer that not everybody else could hear…just a teddy bear, a manchild…loving and wonderful.”
Suffering from both Asperger’s syndrome, Joseph was bullied and teased frequently as a kid, Rebecca recalled, but still had plenty of friends and excelled in his classes at Ocean Shores Continuation High School, where he graduated in 2011.
His mother said his troubles began however when he tried ecstasy on the night of his high school graduation — an experience Rebecca said led to increasing self-medication and a slow decline in Joseph’s mental well-being.
Soon, Joseph started not coming home and began frequenting homeless encampments in the area, where Rebecca suspects he tried additional drugs other than ecstasy.
“He started not coming home for weeks on end, he would be down living in homeless encampments…and then he’d even bring some of the homeless people home with him when he’d come back,” she said.
Eventually, Joseph was hospitalized for a suicide attempt one summer, and he “never really came back,” after that, Rebecca said. Over the next several years there would be more suicide attempts, more hospitalizations, and Joseph would be arrested for multiple felonies including assaulting a police officer.
“He deteriorated more and more, he was getting arrested over and over again, he would come home suicidal…one time he ran around with a butcher’s knife and got arrested, other times the police would just find him wandering the streets and take him home,” Rebecca said.
The Reinigs “tried everything,” to get their son help, Rebecca recalled. Over the next 10 years, the family took Joseph to countless different hospitals, care facilities, and treatment centers. But beyond receiving a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder, Rebecca said that Joseph never really received any kind of long-term care or stabilization.
At most care centers, Joseph would simply end up back on the streets within days after admission because of the chronic shortage of beds throughout the county, Rebecca said. At other times, hospitals released him because Joseph simply refused help.
“Time and time again, he was labeled gravely disabled and unable to care for himself…and time and time again they would release him back to the streets,” Rebecca said. “It was a vicious cycle. What he needed was long-term hospital care but the level of care he needed was non-existent in our town.”
San Diego County suffers from an acute shortage of longer-term psychiatric care facilities, according to Paul Webster, founder and director of the Hope Street Coalition, a homelessness advocacy group.
At the state level, lawmakers for years have ignored the need to invest dollars into psychiatric hospitals, in an approach that dates back to the 1960s when Webster says California bought into a “community-based mental health” approach that deemphasized the need for long-term care programs.
As a result, San Diego politicians have long refrained from pushing for the type of psychiatric care centers needed for those like Joseph suffering from severe mental illness, Webster said. Instead, families like the Reinigs often have to drive hours of county altogether, just to find a viable treatment option.
“The kinds of mental health facilities that those with extreme illness need don’t really even exist in San Diego County,” Webster said. “Our policymakers at the county level aren’t connecting the dots to see what happens when you have no place to go for appropriate treatment—what happens is you see an explosion of unhoused and untreated individuals.”
“What the county should be doing is not just building more housing but building more housing that heals, building more acute, more sub-acute, more adult residential facilities…creating spaces for people to and receive the appropriate treatment.”
‘I think he’d be alive today’
The Reinigs meanwhile, desperately made efforts to get Joseph conserved under state law. Under the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act of 1967, or LPS, individuals requiring extensive mental health care can be placed under a conservatorship through an adult guardian, meaning that they can receive involuntary treatment.
But the Reinig’s efforts to get Joseph conserved proved fruitless, as state officials who reviewed his case determined that he did not meet the required threshold. Their hands were tied.
“We tried to get him conserved just last summer, a conservator investigator saw him but he knew all the right things to tell her to avoid getting conserved…he told her he was alright, then he took off and we couldn’t find him again,” Rebecca said.
“I think if I could have had him conserved, forcing him to stay in a hospital and get stabilized long-term, I think he’d be alive today.”
In order to get an individual conserved, family members must prove that their love is “gravely disabled,” unable to care for themselves and/or a threat to public safety.
However, the way that the LPS law has been designed and interpreted in California’s courts, it’s almost impossible for the average family to meet the “gravely disabled” threshold, says Chris Megison, president of Solutions for Change, a homeless services organization that operates in the North County area.
“The way the law is designed…there’s just so much difficulty to prove eligibility for your loved one and to work through all the different hoops of this law is so painful and not something that in any way, shape or form is really going to be a positive experience for any family involved,” Megison said. “Unfortunately with LPS law, it’s an example of how the government is designed around containing a problem vs. solving the underlying problem…and the way that this system has been designed, it’s helped exacerbate and increase the level of mental anguish on our streets to an extent that we’ve never seen before.”
‘The new pandemic’
Desperate to get Joseph home, Rebecca would go alone to homeless encampments in Oceanside and Escondido, talking to anybody she could find to get an idea of her son’s whereabouts. She became acquainted with some of Joseph’s friends in the encampments and even got the phone numbers of some of the homeless in case they could help her find him.
It was in searching for her son that Rebecca began to understand the true extent of the misery and squalor in the encampments.
“I would say 90% of the people in these places are mentally ill with some type of addiction problem…it’s outrageous, it’s filthy, there’s needles, drugs, there are piles of [excement] everywhere in these camps…living on the streets truly is a fate worse than death,” Rebecca said.
On one occasion, a judge referred Joseph to Restoration Ranch, a sober living facility in Ramona, where he was discharged within weeks after program managers told Rebecca that he was “more than they could handle” given their resources.
Another time, the Reinigs took Joseph to Tender Loving Mercy Inc., a dual diagnosis center in Oceanside designed to treat both those suffering from addiction as well as the mentally ill — but Rebecca said that staff at the facility were verbally abusive and disrespectful to Joseph, so she pulled him out of the program.
Twelve days before Joseph’s death, Rebecca said that he was admitted to the Aurora Behavioral Health Care in Rancho Bernardo for treatment.
Rebecca said she called the hospital, desperately pleading for them to place a three-day psychiatric hold on Joseph that would have prevented him from being released back to the streets — but hospital staff told her that Joseph had been violent with care workers and that they could not continue to hold him there against his will.
Joseph was discharged and dropped off at a CVS store where he had told staff he had a prescription to pick up. A couple of days later, a homeless woman stumbled across Joseph’s body, about five miles east of the CVS. The cause of his death remains under investigation, although police believe that illicit substances, including fentanyl, may have played a factor.
She’ll never forget the day she got that call from her middle son Jonathan.
“My son called me in the morning and said, ‘Have you heard from Joey lately,’ and I said, ‘No, I’m waiting to hear from him, they just let him out of the hospital and he hasn’t called, and he said, ‘Well, he’s not going to be calling mom’— he had to tell me that his brother was dead.”
In telling her story, Rebecca said she hopes that she can help other families avoid what happened to her son and fight the social stigma that exists when it comes to the homeless.
“No other mother should have to go through what I went through…I used to think I was the only person with an ill son on the streets…but there are thousands of people like my son,” Rebecca said. “It’s the new pandemic, and it’s getting worse. And then there’s the stigma, people just don’t care, they see your son die and they say ‘another drug addict bites the dust’…well to us our son was so much more than this.”
Since Joseph’s death, Rebecca admitted she’s struggled to forgive herself, constantly questioning what more she could have done to get her son off the streets.
“I think I should have been able to do more, I should have been able to save him,” Rebecca said. “I just go back over everything day in and day out and ask what more could I have done, what did I miss, who else could have talked to…the guilt sometimes overpowers me.”
But Rebecca said she’s found a new purpose in sharing her story with others. She connects with other mothers in her community, sharing Joseph’s story in communal Facebook groups or at in-person events, and she says that her goal is to eventually get into public speaking to push for change when it comes to conservatorship laws and the need for more comprehensive care for the homeless that addresses mental illness.
“I promised my son that his death won’t be in vain, if I have to scream it out from the rooftops I will…if it can happen to us, it can happen to anybody,” Rebecca said. “To me, this is a civil rights issue…our loved ones are out there on the streets and they don’t have those rights we’re promised in this county, rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. For these families, there’s gotta be an answer somewhere out there for you…I’m willing to fight for that.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final article in The Coast News’ three-part series profiling homeless individuals and their families in North County. Check out the previous stories: “Homeless in North County: Jake’s Story” and “Homeless in North County: Luke’s Story.”