As more Americans seek help for symptoms of mental illness, the healthcare industry can’t keep pace with demand. In California, the largest de facto mental institution is now the Los Angeles County jail.

All too often, the criminal justice system is the first stop toward getting long-term care. A few decades ago, fewer than half of state hospital patients came from the criminal justice system. Today, more than 90 percent do.

“We’re waiting for a disaster to happen,” one mother told a judge as she sought treatment for her son. The judge’s response: My hands are tied.

“There isn’t a big political action committee, well-funded, for mentally ill people. It doesn’t exist,” said state Sen. Jim Beall of San Jose.

This is the story of people and families struggling to get the help they need—and the challenges of finding a safe, affordable place to call home even as those options are dwindling.

Editors’ note: A similar version of this CalMatters video appeared on the PBS NewsHour tonight.

Read our ongoing series Breakdown: Mental health in California.

This coverage made possible by a grant from the California Health Care Foundation.

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Byrhonda Lyons is a national award-winning video journalist for CalMatters. She creates compelling multimedia stories about how California policy affects people’s everyday lives. From the state’s mental...