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Speaking To The Voiceless

news Homeless3Local governments ramp up outreach to mentally ill

Some people are too troubled to help themselves. This scenario played out tragically when a homeless man with a history of mental illness murdered local business owner Shannon Collins near Downtown Santa Cruz in early May. The incident pushed the perpetually simmering topic of homeless issues to the front of Santa Cruz politics, with groups including Take Back Santa Cruz demanding the city do something about what they see as an unaddressed safety issue.

The result was a package of proposals put forth by the Homeless Services Center and members of the Santa Cruz City Council. One proposal in the batch called for increasing mental health outreach in the downtown area. While he doesn’t think it could stop a random, tragic killing like the one that ended Collins’ life, Mayor Don Lane hopes this sort of outreach will reduce what he calls “nuisance crimes.” On June 26, the city council increased mental health outreach funding to $80,000 from $75,000. Although that is only a 7 percent jump, the amount is significant because the city is now picking up the entire tab, which was previously paid for by redevelopment funds until Gov. Jerry Brown abolished those agencies statewide in 2011.
Cash from the city will be coupled with boosted mental health spending the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors also approved at the end of last month. The board hiked funding to $275,000, which will help beef up staffing on two teams devoted to addressing mental health issues on the streets.

The Maintaining Ongoing Stability through Treatment (MOST) team program has undertaken this mission since 2007 and is core to the city and county’s recently ramped-up efforts to engage homeless people who are repeat offenders and could benefit from an evaluation or direction to help. The team has four members and is largely funded by the county. MOST provides “rapid response to calls for mental health support and crisis intervention” when the Santa Cruz Police Department is called out to a situation involving a homeless person, according to city documents.

The program will have the biggest impact on crimes such as theft, public intoxication and vandalism, says Lane. “This is where we can take repeat offenders [living on the street] and refer them to doing something more productive,” he says.
The plethora of services available in the county for people trying to obtain shelter, food, or medical and/or counseling services can be daunting even for someone with all their wits about them, so giving a list of how to find help to someone with mental health issues doesn’t always do the trick. This is where the Downtown Outreach Workers (DOW)—and the fact that the city’s funding bump will pay for an additional one—comes in. While MOST focuses where police are already involved, the DOWs try to bring hope to even less-noticed people. (Staying out of trouble with the law does not guarantee a homeless person is more comfortable in their surroundings, after all.) DOWs approach people they see living in the downtown area and start by introducing themselves, and, in most cases they describe services that could help the individual’s circumstances. With an extra staff member to carry out this work, the existing one-person team will be able to do more in-depth follow-ups with clients.
“These people’s situation is not going to get better immediately on their own,” says Lane. “The DOW can point them in the right direction, but now they will be able to stay more regularly in touch with them through the process.”
The services they are connected with range from counseling to places to obtain food. But others are in need of bus tickets home, rides to the hospital for prenatal care or information on how to get food stamps (now CalFresh) after they give birth, according to Pam Rogers, acute services manager at Santa Cruz County Adult Mental Health Services.

There are, however, limits to the programs, says Rogers, explaining that some homeless people refuse to work with DOWs for a variety of reasons ranging from their type of mental health issue to substance abuse problems they don’t want to face.
“The issue continues to be individuals not wanting to participate in services such as rehabilitation,” Rogers says. “That is where the finesse of the DOW comes in, and a person on the streets day to day is more likely to be beaten down enough to accept the help.”

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