This week, the Santa Barbara community learned that the city’s homeless death toll now crests 27 people since the beginning of the year. On Friday, experts will discuss the city’s struggle to prevent more deaths and the often-symbiotic role mental health plays in the lives of the homeless.
The Consumer Advocacy Coalition and Casa Esperanza are co-hosting a town hall event from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday in the Faulkner Gallery of the Santa Barbara Public Library, 40 E. Anapamu St. It’s a space that CAC Director Roger Thompson expects to be standing-room only.
Thompson and CAC, a group made up of individuals who use county mental health services, are championing the cause of mental health among residents — with or without homes.
In August, when the number of deaths was 18, Los Angeles Times writer Steve Lopez published a story about the rash of deaths in the city. Thompson said the story is part of the impetus for the town hall. He wrote Lopez soon after the story ran to “let him know we do care,” he said.
With Thompson working at the helm, leading 45 volunteers in organizing the event, it’s their largest undertaking yet. The group made waves at the state level when they held a news conference in April, voicing adamant opposition to the state’s grab at $500 million in mental health funding proposed in May’s special election.
That measure never passed, but Thompson and his group are bracing for continued cuts as the state continues to wade through the financial mire. But restoring mental health programs isn’t all about the county and state to get their acts together.
“The onus shouldn’t always be on the county,” he said. “The community has a responsibility, too.”
Mike Foley, executive director of Casa Esperanza, said more than 100 people were taken in by the shelter last month, and about 45 of those said upfront that they had mental health issues. “That doesn’t include people that aren’t up front about it,” he said, estimating that another 20 percent come forward later for mental health issues.
Foley said he wants attendees the forum to come away with several things. Becoming a member of CAC is important, he said, and he wants residents to come away with a heightened sensitivity to the needs of people living on the streets.
“We also want people to be motivated to hold the mental health system accountable,” he said. “The idea that group of mental health consumers who know the system and know what they need and how to make the system better … could really be a national model.”
Another CAC offshoot from Kern County, which began this month, will have a presence at the meeting, and director Shannon Johnson will be included in the panel, in addition to Thompson and Foley.
Other panelists slated to speak are Mayor-elect Helene Schneider, 2nd District Supervisor Janet Wolf, Kern County NAMI President Cindy Gill, NAMI Frontline co-founder Patrice Maniaci and 2009 NAMI Consumer of the Year Paul Cummings.
The panel will be moderated by Geoff Green, executive director of The Fund for Santa Barbara.
The CAC will host another town hall on the same topic in Bakersfield in March.
Outside the library during Friday’s town hall, 50,000 people are expected to line State Street to watch the 57th Annual Downtown Holiday Parade. Still, the ruckus of holding an event simultaneously to the holiday fanfare doesn’t phase Thompson.
“We’ll be inside the Faulkner Gallery, talking about the 4,000 that will be left after the parade to sleep under the stars,” he said.
— Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.