The treatment of homeless people who are mentally ill must include housing. Neither problem can be solved without the ultimate collaboration of Mental Health Services and housing providers. Here’s how it goes.
Give someone a shower, clean clothes, a meal, a bed and a case manager. Housing makes homelessness easier to solve than to manage. A famous case study was reported in The New Yorker, February 13, 2006. It is titled “Million-Dollar Murray”. The study claims that a small number of chronic homeless people cause a large drain on social services. It also shows it is less expensive to house them than it is to chase them. I don’t mean place them into an apartment and give them the keys. A treatment program, structure, counseling, and case management 24 hours a day, 7 days a week is required.
In one specific 18-hour period in Santa Paula in May, one homeless woman was transported by police, fire and ambulance three times and treated in the emergency rooms of two County Hospitals. She is an addict and has transitioned to Methadone. She received extraordinary treatment in the hospital for almost three weeks for her chronic illnesses. When she was almost well she was discharged with nowhere to go but the streets. She misses follow-up appointments, loses her prescriptions, and can’t keep her sores clean. She is nearly back where she started. The cost to taxpayers is hundreds of thousands of dollars. Imagine the cost over the last 25 years of her homelessness.
We need people on street who are the warm fire that draws them in. Partners and response teams need to be trained professionals who know who to call and where to go when someone is ready for sobriety. Clinicians need to be on scene--not in an office hoping someone drops in.
Failure to provide the team power at the entry level has brought us to the hard task we face now. Bits and pieces of good work are being done but there is a disconnect in some. One is that not all communities have the resources to deal with the problem. This is especially critical since the central winter shelter in Oxnard has been terminated for 2015. Unless a community provides one, homeless people will be on streets this winter--in all communities. This will elevate the need for police and fire services.
The Mental Health Services family must convene a task force to address the specific issues that communities face within the homeless population fueled by drug and alcohol addictions and develop pro-active strategies that include housing. They must also bring trained clinicians into our schools to deal with children facing suicide and depression. They need to help parents struggling with financial stresses and all the issues facing our culture. Santa Paula deserves financial and resource parity with every other community.
No entity is better equipped or informed than this County’s Behavioral Health system. The approach needs to be radical to achieve radical and positive outcomes. The goal is to solve a problem that affects the whole community—business owners, children, public safety and relieve the taxpayers who are funding millions annually to treat and transport. We need to treat the whole person.
When there is both a mental health disorder and a substance abuse issue, it is important that the patient enroll in a treatment program that addresses both problems at the same time. The untreated symptoms of a mental health disorder can cause the patient to be unable to remain clean and sober, and untreated substance abuse issues can make mental health treatment ineffective.
I often feel crushed with the weight of human need from our homeless people. The need now is the heavy artillery and chariots of trained professionals who will work until it’s done. It won’t take long--just money and talent and commitment.
I have wondered why love isn’t enough. Why isn’t the family tie or the memories of affection, security, holidays, birthdays and graduations enough to motivate an addict to and seek sobriety? Why do they love the drug more than the people who love them most.
I have wondered that since our own daughter, Kathy, died of a drug overdose in 2006. What would have made the difference in her last day, or in the days preceding that one?
I pray the hope and encouragement I offer will make a life-changing difference in someone’s last day. I know that if I fail to try I will answer for it.