There's much to applaud in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed state budget. It's fiscally prudent but also takes a progressive approach to many of California's deepest problems: our aging infrastructure, children who lack health care and overcrowded, dangerous prisons. But there is one item that we hope he'll restore to the budget and that local lawmakers will insist be put back in: A program that ensures the homeless with mental illnesses get off the streets and become productive citizens.
The governor's plan to cut the Integrated Services for Homeless Adults with Serious Mental Illness program would save the state $54.9 million.
Yet the program is one of the most successful in the nation for getting those homeless who are severely mentally ill off the street. It comprehensively addresses a homeless individual's needs by ensuring he receives hygiene, housing, food and substance abuse treatment. Between 2000 and 2005, it boasted an 80 percent success rate for 1,227 of the state's homeless. It should not be a surprise that the President's New Freedom Commission called it a "model program."
Spending nearly $55 million to annually get so few people off the street may seem expensive. But there's no simple solution to homelessness other than providing comprehensive, wrap-around services. And add to that the savings from getting the homeless out of emergency rooms and jails the average homeless person cost society about $15,000 annually for detox, incarceration, emergency room and health care, the Denver (Colo.) Housing First Collaborative reports and the program's per capita cost is greatly reduced.
Ending homelessness isn't just a matter of being a social do-gooder it's also about combating crime and keeping down health care costs. Those suffering from mental illnesses make up a sizeable portion of California's homeless population. Many of them becoming addicted to meth, resulting in increased crime. And the number of homeless is large about 90,000 homeless reside in Los Angeles alone, reports California Partnership, a statewide coalition of community groups fighting poverty. In Del Norte County, an estimated 20-30 people are homeless, though that is a conservative estimate.
Make no mistake about it, homelessness will take a long time to resolve. But the homeless issue has been underfunded ever since the state closed its mental hospitals in the 1970s. We are now left with hundreds of thousands of Californians who live no better than the Third World's poorest and whose effect on our public safety and health care services no longer can be ignored. California's lawmakers must do something about homeless. They can start by restoring funding for the Integrated Services for Homeless Adults with Serious Mental Illness program.
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