States, counties and cities around the nation have begun to or will soon receive largesse from the federal government via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, more commonly known as the federal economic stimulus package.
Designed to stimulate the economy by creating new jobs through infrastructure, green technology and education, the financial infusion is considered by many to be a welcome shot in the arm to counties and municipalities that have seen their unemployment figures increase dramatically.
But local mental health advocates are worried that the clientele that they serve may not benefit equally from the massive government appropriation and that a California state initiative could expand the numbers of the homeless population that suffer from mental illnesses.
Last month, legislators in Washington, D.C. awarded $338 million in grants to clinics to treat more patients and hire healthcare workers, according to California Healthline, an online digest of healthcare news, policy and opinion. The Venice Family Clinic recently was notified that it will receive $230,000 for its Mar Vista location.
“These funds will allow us to see more people who are homeless,” said Elizabeth Benson Forer, the clinic’s executive director. “The federal people have done a masterful job in getting us these grants right way, since in some cases, the window to make the application was very small.”
The recent motion picture “The Soloist” starring Oscar-winner Jaime Foxx and Robert Downey Jr., which is based on a true story in Los Angeles, has cast a more sympathetic face on the mentally challenged homeless, who make up a substantial portion of the homeless population.
As part of a social action campaign, the National Alliance on Mental Illness is launching a Web site, www.nami.org/soloist/ to draw more attention to those who have been afflicted with mental illnesses and are living on the streets like Foxx’s character, a violin virtuoso who is also a schizophrenic.
But some local service providers and mental health officials are unsure if the money from the economic stimulus package will be sufficient to prevent more people from getting the care that they need in a time of drastic belt-tightening on all government levels.
And in an effort to keep previously approved budget measures in place, state lawmakers are pushing a series of ballot measures that they say will allow the state to continue to be more fiscally responsible. One of the measures, Proposition 1E, would authorize a shift of approximately $230 million for two years in income tax surcharge revenue from Proposition 63 that is currently earmarked for specified mental health programs.
Prop. 63, known as the Mental Health Services Act, is an initiative that was passed by California voters in 2004.
Diverting money from a revenue source for those who are in need of mental health services during a recession is misguided, says John Maceri, the executive director of OPCC, a social service organization in Santa Monica.
“The vast majority of the people that we work with are mentally ill or have substance abuse problems,” said Maceri. “(Prop. 63) is money that was approved by voter initiative to support mental health services, and to take resources and use them for other things would be devastating.”
Santa Monica City Councilman Kevin McKeown believes that this plan is akin to looting funds from those who are less fortunate and in some cases incapable of speaking for themselves.
“Prop. 1E would ‘borrow’ from mental health programs. History has shown such ‘borrowing’ is really stealing, because the money is never paid back. Is this the California we want to become?” the councilman asked.
Forer, who was in Sacramento on April 22nd, laments the possible loss of funding from mental illness programs but realizes that these are difficult times for all, including state elected representatives.
“They have some very difficult choices,” she said.
Forer said that the passage of Proposition 1E would not have an immediate adverse effect on the Venice Family Clinic.
“It’s hard to say what the impact will be long-term,” Forer added.
A high ranking official of a state mental health organization says that if Prop. 1E is successful, the consequences could be drastic, including many mentally ill patients possibly joining the ranks of the homeless.
“The California Mental Health Directors Association has serious concerns about the impact this proposed diversion of MHSA funds could have on the more than 600,000 mental health consumers that we serve and on the many thousands that go unserved,” Patricia Ryan, the association’s executive director, said in a statement issued on March 2nd.
“A $460 million hit on MHSA funds, on top of other local and state revenue reductions, will inevitably impact counties’ ability to serve the people in our communities with serious mental illness, and it could also result in more homelessness, hospitalizations, and increased pressure on our social safety net, costing taxpayers more in the long run.”
McKeown believes that once again, as in past budget battles, social services are getting shortchanged.
“When the state budget plan was forged, oil severance taxes and increased alcohol taxes were not considered, and grateful oil and liquor companies are bankrolling the initiative campaign,” McKeown asserted.
“We know for a fact that mental illness and homelessness are often linked. Apparently, mentally ill Californians were considered less likely to effectively oppose the initiatives, and sometimes we have to stand up for the voiceless.”
Ryan says that 210,000 Californians have accessed community mental health services that are either fully or partially funded by the Mental Health Directors Association.
“The fiscal wisdom of treating people living with mental illness in our own communities, rather than homeless shelters, hospitals or the criminal justice system, has also been borne out in the thousands of people diverted from costly institutions,” said the association’s executive director.
Maceri feels that neglecting or taking money away from mental health services will have the same effect that the country has seen with the continued deterioration of its roads, highways and public transit systems.
“We’ll see a continued decline in the quality of life for people living with mental illness if Prop. 63 funds are redirected to other uses,” he predicted. “It will have a huge impact on Los Angeles County, where the Department of Mental Health, which then contracts with agencies like ours, receives millions of dollars a year in Prop 63 funds.”
A special election on Prop. 1E, as well as several others, will be held on Tuesday, May 19th.