NEVADA CITY, Calif. February 1, 2017 – County taxpayer money spent on advocacy for disabled and mentally ill chronically homeless has a return rate as high as $3.00, for every dollar spent as people move from local to federal aid. It only makes sense to invest in this advocacy and make sure Nevada County is doing it.  Any county that does not provide intensive advocacy services is neglectful and results in taxpayer money being wasted.

So intertwined are homelessness and mental illness it is impossible to resolve one without the other. Most chronically homeless people are battling severe conditions like schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress and bipolar disorder. Nevada County needs to be more assertive in intervening in the lives of the mentally ill homeless, making sure all federal and state programs are used to reduce the burden on local resources. As it now stands taxpayers are paying twice, both at the Federal and local levels.

Are we going to offer a new model for dealing with our mental health problem or are we going to continue to waste taxpayer money on law enforcement, jail and court expenses, emergency room visits and camp cleanups?

Substance abuse disorders are rampant among the mentally ill homeless. Symptoms of mental illness and methamphetamine addiction are similar and its difficult to discern if an individual is high, or having a psychotic episode. Currently a person exhibiting bizarre behavior is taken to the emergency room and immediately released because the hospital determines their condition is not critical.

A suggestion would be that the Nevada County District Attorney, working through Behavioral Health, create a new “Mental Health Court” to alleviate the current shortage of mental health services that results in jail time and homelessness thus ending the cycle of turning mentally ill prisoners back to the street.

The problem is, that even with a 90-day alcohol abuse or mental health facility, if there is not a supportive room at the end, then that person is returned to the streets and falls back into the addiction and mental health downward spiral. The longer a person is on the street, the less able they are to sustain recovery. We need many more inpatient psychiatric beds in Nevada County and many more supportive housing units (rooms) to give people safe places to stay in between levels of mental health care. In Nevada County there are not sufficient supportive housing rooms available for people who are ready to move forward in their lives. We desperately need to create some.

People recovering from severe addiction and mental illness may need years of continuing support. The goal of a continuum-of-care program is to get people into permanent supportive housing where their mental health is stabilized. Here they can live independently but have continued access to on-site resources, like counseling, nurses and case managers.

SSI (Social Security Income) represents a critical amount of money that can help save people from homelessness due to physical and mental disorders. Nevada County needs to provide a robust advocacy program to help people sign up for SSI benefits. The federal government’s rigid criteria and lengthy review process, and the difficulty that mentally ill and disabled have in applying, means tens of millions of dollars remain in Washington instead of getting to those who could use it for housing and stability. This effort will pay for itself as local cash aid is swapped for federal dollars.

“The Homeless Advocacy Program’s (HAP) SOAR Project, established in Philadelphia in 2007, is designed to quickly secure federal disability benefits for vulnerable men, women and youth, who are homeless, or at risk of homelessness.” SOAR provides an expedited disability application protocol for the chronically homeless. The SOAR project rapidly secures SSI benefits for disabled homeless, including disabled veterans who are either ineligible for VA benefits or are without income while navigating the slow VA claims process.

Since the beginning, The SOAR Project has maintained a 98% approval rate securing SSI benefits, with an average of 52 days from filing to determination. SSI claims outside the SOAR Project are approved only 10-15% of the time. As a result homeless claimants face an arduous appeal process that can take more than two years, a wait during which a person is too disabled to work and is trapped in homelessness, trying to survive with no income.

HAP’s expanded program, with funding from private foundations, is able to secure a stable income stream for disabled prisoners participating in Philadelphia’s “Mental Health Court”. SOAR representation is “initiated in jail” so that benefits can be activated upon release, thus allowing participants to obtain stable housing along with supportive services, thereby decreasing the likelihood of recidivism.

Is Nevada County using the SOAR program and do we have enough trained staff to help people obtain their SSI benefits? All agencies working with the mentally ill homeless should be trained in this method and have the necessary forms on site.

Pauli Halstead is the manager of Streicher House community day center in Nevada City.