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Governor's budget could leave homeless out in the cold

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Local mental health advocates and law enforcement officials fear Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed budget an as-yet-unsigned plan that would reduce the state's deficit by about $1 billion will decimate a state initiative that's been touted as a model to the nation. They also worry it will exacerbate the already severe shortage of resources for mental health services in SLO County.

An important part of the governor's plan is to lump together similar programs that are now scattered across the government he believes it will make the government more efficient.

One item on the chopping block referred to as Assembly Bill 2034 is a program begun in 1999 that provided local governments money to combat the neglect of mentally ill homeless people. The program's budget eventually grew to $50 million statewide, and it was touted nationwide as a model program not just for the impact it has had on numerous mentally ill clients, but for the financial burden lifted from city emergency rooms and law enforcement.

The governor's budget has been scheduled to take effect in July the start of the 2007-08 fiscal year. Capitol insiders don't expect it to pass on time, but they do believe that when it is finally approved it will take a big chunk out of social services.

SLO County receives almost $1 million annually from the program, more than half of which funds Transitions Mental Health. Schwarzenegger has proposed axing the money, with the assumption that dollars from Proposition 63 will fill in funding gaps. That proposition, passed by voters in 2004, funds mental health services and programs through a 1 percent tax on incomes over $1 million.

Local homeless advocacy groups, however, worry that clients could once again be on the streets without the funds budgeted through the program that predates Prop. 63.

Jill Bolster-White is the executive director for Transitions Mental Health. With funding from A.B. 2034, she said, her organization is housing and treating 77 mentally ill people in the county. A small staff, including one public health nurse and a psychiatrist, focus on outreach because, they say, clients may not even have the capacity to seek help.

Transitions employees go to overpasses, homeless camps, parks, and the Prado Day Center looking for the mentally ill and offering treatment for everything from Hepititis C to minor infections. Success, Bolster-White said, lies in finding housing for the clients, and getting them to accept treatment for their mental illness.

"Statewide, 2034 appeals not just to the soft-hearted, but also to the fiscally minded," Bolster-White said. "Because of the expense associated with police time, the jail time, and time spent in hospitals for these people if they are untreated, the program has saved millions."

Local law enforcement groups spend significant time responding to complaints about mentally ill homeless people, said SLO Police Chief Deb Linden, noting they usually work in collaboration with social workers.

Linden has, for two years, served on Transitions Mental Health's board of directors, but as a law enforcement officer, she said, she would be disappointed to see the funding dry up.

"It's a great program," Linden said. "I am really disappointed to see the governor has proposed cutting funding. I think it's really critical for helping these people get into housing and get treatment."

Homeless advocates point out that the old funding system works specifically to help the mentally ill homeless, whereas the new funds will serve a much broader population of people with mental illness, and may never reach the homeless.

"[The money] is important because it is exclusively looking to eliminate homelessness among the mentally ill," Bolster-White said. "Such a high percentage of homeless have undiagnosed mental illness that's why the outreach is so important."

The money from Prop. 63, she said, builds on the work funded through the existing programs by, for example, funding jobs for people who have gone through recovery.

"Worst-case scenario: the funding actually goes away," Bolster-White said. "For the 77 people who are housed right now, I don't know how we can maintain that. And the people moving on the path right now people we are engaging with about housing and treatment, we won't have the resources to help them."

 

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