STEVE LOPEZ / POINTS WEST

Stakes Are So High, It's Hard to Wait

And then you have a chance.

Sure, Steinberg admitted, involuntary treatment may be the best approach in some cases. But let's not make that the focus of the Proposition 63 discussion, he suggested, until we first fortify services that have been scarce or nonexistent for decades.

This makes sense. In theory.

At least it did until after the bus tour. While the commissioners at the front of the room talked about the proven benefits of housing backed up with all the essential services, the conversation in the back of the room was about how hard it is to convince people they're sick, let alone steer them into housing.

Nancy Carter, whose son is mentally ill, approached me in a state of near-hysteria over the news that a dear friend of hers had just found out that his schizophrenic son was in a hospital burn unit after climbing an electrified fence. If we wait until such people come around for help "in their own time," it may be too late.

Carter, a member of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, also told me of someone who had just jumped off a building, and she reminded me and Commissioner Mark Ridley-Thomas of the mentally ill woman who allegedly threw her children to the sharks in San Francisco Bay.

"This is what we deal with," said Carter, who knows of countless people who are so exasperated they would opt for the involuntary treatment of desperately ill loved ones who refuse help. "Every day I get one story after another."

I've heard too many of those stories to rest easy. But while I cringe at the thought of what could happen to Nathaniel on the streets, where he lugs two violins and a cello everywhere he goes, I cringe, too, at the thought of him being carted off against his will.

This is a man who is very excited these days about the news that a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic has offered to give him lessons, which may, in the end, be the best therapy he can get.

That's a column for another day. For now, I wait, fingers crossed.

Patience, patience, patience.

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

Serving the needy of skid row

In response to queries from readers about how to help improve things on skid row, here is a partial list of established agencies:

•  Los Angeles Catholic Worker

Catholic Workers say their mission is to "feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner." They run a skid row soup kitchen. http://www.lacatholicworker.org

•  Central City Community Outreach

A ministry of the Church of the Nazarene, Central City provides, among other services, an after-school tutoring program for children on skid row. http://www.lacentralcity.org

•  Chrysalis

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