State Legislator From OC Speaks Up About Her Homeless Brother's Death

Assemblymember Sharon Quirk-Silva holds a program from the memorial service for her brother, Raymond William "Billy" Jaso, who died Oct. 9, 2018. (Jill Replogle/LAist)

As a state legislator from Orange County, Sharon Quirk-Silva is at the center of the region's big, contentious conversation about homelessness.

But for her, it's personal.

Her younger brother, Raymond William "Billy" Jaso, died last year after living on the streets and crashing with relatives for many years. He struggled with alcohol addiction. In October he was fatally hit by a car. He was 53.

It was something of a turning point for Quirk-Silva.

"We can't continue to see people die on our streets," she said through tears at a recent meeting of Orange County's Medi-Cal insurer, CalOptima.

As a public official, Quirk-Silva has wrestled with the fallout of homelessness for almost a decade. In 2011, while she was on Fullerton's City Council, a schizophrenic homeless man named Kelly Thomas, died at the hands of Fullerton police officers. The incident caused a national public outcry and led to the recall of three city councilmembers.

More recently, Orange County has faced multiple lawsuits from homeless advocates over alleged constitutional violations.

In response, Quirk-Silva has backed several bills aimed at increasing the county's housing stock and strengthening its care for unhoused people experiencing mental illness.

KPCC/LAist sat down to talk with her about her brother, Jaso, and why she feels Orange County is failing to address homelessness. (Questions and answers have been condensed and edited for clarity.)

Jill Replogle (KPCC/LAist): Can you tell me a bit about your brother?

Quirk-Silva: He was the eighth out of 10 in our family, very big family. And from the very beginning, I remember he used to get in trouble a lot. Very hyperactive. As a teacher for 30 years myself, I really do think that he probably had ADHD and it was not diagnosed. My parents probably didn't understand that they could ask for him to be tested.

Billy was very athletic, and very charismatic. I mean, he could talk his way into anything.

Q: What about your family life growing up?

My father was an alcoholic. He would be fine and go to work for, you know, two or three years, the nicest person in the world. And then he would go on a binge for two or three weeks, and completely just be gone. That was hard on all of us because you never knew when it was going to happen.

Billy did fight alcoholism, as well. And when people have that, you know, a lot of times they don't see it as a disease, but it really is a disease. And even to his last days, he said, 'Sharon, I'm never going to not want to drink. You don't know how hard that is.'

Q: Was he ever in treatment?

If he went into jail, he always had to go to programs. That was part of his probation. A lot of times he would be really good about going to these, whether it be a psychiatrist appointment or an AA meeting. Early on, he could not drink for maybe six months, a year, and kind of get back on track. As he got older and had more and more issues, it was down to sometimes two weeks.

(A few months before Jaso died, he had entered a program in Buena Park for homeless individuals recovering from mental or physical health problems.)

He had some rough months over the summer. But he started to kind of stop fighting it and be there. It was the longest time he had actually stayed anywhere.

Q: Why have you felt compelled lately to speak up about your brother's struggles?

I realized we've been talking about all these (homeless) people, the 'these' and 'theys' and 'who,' and we never had put a face to that, not one person's story.

At CalOptima, I had no idea that I'd be so emotional. And I really am kind of mad that I was because there were some things that I wanted to say. But I think when I was talking about my brother, Billy, and then about the Kelly Thomas case, in that moment I realized this has been almost 10 years and we have even more of an issue than we ever have had before.

You have people on the street that are mentally ill. My mom, and I know (Thomas's) mother spent a lot of time looking for (their sons). My mom would always be there no matter what. A lot of times, (Jaso) would just have my mom take him to the emergency room. And that is one thing that my mom knew how to do. And then that would become sometimes her solution, 'Come on, I'm going to take you to the emergency room.'

Q: What did you want to say at the CalOptima meeting that you didn't get to say?

We've seen almost 300 (homeless) people die last year in Orange County. If we deliver the (health care) services the way we have, we're not going to see a change. Asking somebody who has physical problems and mental health problems to navigate the system and, 'hey, just come back here for a checkup,' that's not going to happen.

Our patients aren't the traditional patients that we've had. In the long run, if they change the (health care delivery) model, they're going to end up saving money. And we're going to have healthier people. And CalOptima's mandate is to care for the most vulnerable in Orange County.

(CalOptima recently launched a pilot program that will bring mobile health care to people living on the streets and in shelters.)

Q: You said we haven't learned anything since Kelly Thomas's death. Why do you think that is?

We don't have people who want to say 'yes.' And it's the NIMBYs, it's local elected officials. When it comes down to permanent supportive housing or emergency shelter, people flood the chambers and then (officials) say, 'no.'

Fairview (a state-owned hospital complex in Costa Mesa) is a very good example. We have this land, like 120 acres, and there's buildings and a hospital. And so why do we have people sleeping on the streets?

(Quirk-Silva is sponsoring legislation to temporarily house and treat homeless people with severe mental illness at Fairview.)

My bill does not in any way say, 'bring just the homeless here,' it's for the most severely mentally ill. This doesn't mean, like let's make Costa Mesa solve the mental health issues of Orange County. But it's state-owned land. Those buildings are there now. And if we had the willingness, we could, at least temporarily house them there with wraparound services.

In Orange County, I feel like we're in a place where maybe we won't resolve (homelessness) 100% but we certainly can contain what's happening. But that's got to be with the willingness of people saying 'yes,' instead of saying 'no.'

Q: How do you respond to somebody who says, 'send homeless people out to the desert. Why aren't their families taking care of them? Why is this my problem?'

I don't blame people for being angry. For many of them, they're business owners, and what are their rights? I agree with that. I also agree with property owners who say, 'hey, this is my local park and I can't take my kids here,' or to the library.

But I would tell them to seriously think about their own lives because many people are one to two paychecks away from homelessness. Look at Paradise. Many of those people never thought that they'd be in the situation they're in with the fires and losing their homes. Or some type of illness that could affect your family and could take every bit of savings from you.

Having systems in place so people don't become homeless is really important. But also knowing that, in fact, people are homeless, and those people are your aunts or uncles. We don't know everybody's story and we don't know what brings them to the streets.

If we don't solve this, the numbers are going to continue to rise and there'll be a point where we can't solve it.