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Monday, January 21 , 2019, 2:19 pm | Fair 63º


Forum Tackles Topic of Homelessness-Mental Health Link

Consumer Advocacy Coalition-Casa Esperanza joint meeting draws crowd of 200 but few conclusions

About two hundred people crowded into the Santa Barbara Central Library’s Faulkner Gallery on Friday night as a handful of panelists discussed the relationship between homelessness and mental health.

As participants packed into the standing room-only gallery, panelists from Santa Barbara, San Diego and Kern County were all present to talk about the issues that Santa Barbara County and the state face with the homeless.

The community has experienced a rash of homeless deaths just this year — 27 as of earlier this week. Panelists were first asked what could be done to prevent another death in the community.

Mike Foley, executive director of Casa Esperanza, said that many county agencies don’t keep a count of the deaths.

“If you called the coroner’s office, they wouldn’t know,” said Foley, who added that the only reason an accurate number was known was that social worker Ken Williams keeps a tally as he works with the homeless daily.

“We know that housing first works,” Foley said. “When we decide we’re going to do housing first, the number of deaths will drop.”

He said the community would have to decide what it would tolerate.

“One death is one death too many,” said another panelist, 2nd District Supervisor Janet Wolf. She said she discovered one caseworker at Casa Esperanza can have as many as 150 people assigned to their caseload, a number far too great to be effective.

Wolf also said she called the Sheriff’s Department and obtained information on 20 of the deaths, whose causes ranged from overdose to accidents to natural causes — and some still undetermined. She said she’d like to see more research done on the deaths and presented to decision makers.

Another question was asked involving veterans and what should be done to support military personnel returning from the front lines in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Wolf said there were more than 32,000 veterans in Santa Barbara County, and, while not all of them have mental health issues, many have needs that are unaddressed.

“It’s disgraceful to me that we cannot find them the care we need,” she said, calling it a “moral imperative.”

Shannon Jones, director of the Consumer Advocacy Coalition’s branch in Kern County, said she’d like to see more support groups that are specific to common issues faced by returning vets.

Patrice Maniaci, co-founder of NAMI Front Line, a group dedicated to veterans’ mental health, agreed and said that the support groups NAMI has establishd have been a huge help for veterans’ families, who often come forward about mental health issues before service members will.

By incorporating families into the support groups, Maniaci said, “we’ve saved numerous families from divorce.”

The panelists were also asked about their thoughts on “magnet theory,” the presumption that if services and housing are provided for the homeless, more will migrate from outside communities.

“That myth is ridiculous,” said panelist Paul Cummings, 2009 NAMI Consumer of the Year. “It’s a great investment to invest in people.”

Foley said there are serious homeless problems across the country and that the entire Pacific Coast struggles with the issue, not just Santa Barbara.

CAC executive director Roger Thompson said Santa Barbara County spends $36 million per year on the homeless population, and that half of that amount went to serving just under 1,000 chronically homeless residents.

But the large amount spent doesn’t mean the county is providing the homeless with $36 million in services, Foley said. He suggested much more could be saved by actually housing people.

In reality, most of those expenses go toward paying the costs of “reacting to homelessness,” said Foley, and include things like trips to the emergency room.

When faced with what to do about the problem, nearly all stressed the importance of education and volunteerism. People wanting to get involved are also encouraged to sign up for CAC and donate money and time.

And as badly needed as financial donations are to the cause, Maniaci said, “what’s really worth it is your time and becoming aware of mental illness.”

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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