How to Handle Mentally Ill and Homeless
Surprise, the candidates for count exec disagree on both issues.
Chris Larson’s View:
My view of government is that of a neighborhood. Neighbors take care of each other in times of great need and we make sure our neighbors are on a good path through quality education, good services to get people on a path to success, and ensuring every family has a high quality of life.
This rings true for our neighbors and family members who are grappling with mental illness and others who are in need of social services. Their needs are as widely varied as our population is. I believe our community should meet each of them where they are, customize care for their specific needs, and work them to transition to a community care model that allows for the community to continue to be at the table.
I supported the legislation and changes to Milwaukee County around mental health but have been disappointed by the direction the current administration has taken in shutting out public input and public oversight over mental health.
Under my administration, we will expand opportunities for public input and for dialogue with staff at the Behavioral Health Division (BHD). The current mental health board has been mislead by the current administration. After promising them they’d get what they need, Abele denied the experts the policy researcher and the full crisis resources they requested in their budget. Beyond that, we’ve seen a disturbing trend of limiting the public’s input at their meetings (once a year) and Abele’s designees have gone so far as to silence employees with a gag order. This is the opposite of what is needed.
We will empower the mental health professionals who actually provide the advice and services. It will be them who set the day-to-day policy that is informed by best practices. Integrating mental health care with help accessing services like housing, legal services, and job training will ensure each of our neighbors receives the personalized care coordination that they need, it will improve health outcomes, and boost their quality of life.
Homelessness is a problem that hits too many families. The most recent figures (2014) show that over one thousand families and over five thousand women requested shelter but did not receive it. This is unacceptable in our community, especially as we were recently scarred with the distinction as a human trafficking hub. Milwaukee County needs to step up and provide the leadership to find the emergency shelter beds needed to tackle poverty head-on.
Chris Abele has repeatedly refused to prioritize funding for Milwaukee County’s homeless shelters during his term in office. In 2013, he suggested homeless shelters should “consider other funding streams,” and in 2014, he vetoed $300,000 for homeless shelters.
Given the county’s responsibility to treat our neighbors with mental illness, no one suffering from mental illness should be homeless. An estimated 29% of Milwaukee County’s homeless population has a serious mental illness. As county executive, I will provide the leadership to ensure we take ownership of their cases to prevent needless homelessness. Just this one piece of the puzzle should significantly reduce the homeless problem.
Chris Abele’s View:
Among the services that Milwaukee County provides, those that create a safety net for our most vulnerable neighbors are the most important. When I ran for County Executive, I did so because I knew that years of neglect and poor decision-making by the former County Executive and the County Board had eroded our ability to provide quality mental health, housing, disability and juvenile delinquency services.
For years, social services had faced budget cuts that deteriorated the quality. My goals were straightforward – stop the cuts, serve more people and serve them better. We have done this. Because of disciplined decision-making to significantly reduce the county’s debt, we have freed tens of millions of dollars in the county’s budget that can be put back into the most vulnerable parts of our community.
One of the most gratifying accomplishments is the turnaround of the mental health system. Previously, we saw endless reports but no real change. In fact, my opponent – when on the County Board – received an audit titled “System Changes are Needed to Ensure Patient and Staff Safety at the Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division” yet the Board would not make the necessary changes in policy to improve care. Unacceptable.
I’m proud that we ended a 100-year history of discriminatory institutionalization of those with mental illness.
I’m even more proud of the 50% reduction in psychiatric inpatient admissions, a 30% reduction in emergency detentions, and a 20% reduction in emergency room visits. Today, patients are treated with more dignity. Is our mental health system perfect? No. We still have work to do but I’m confident that we are on the right path and we will continue to build on the success we’ve enjoyed to continue to improve the quality of care and outcomes over the next four years.
We set another goal last summer. With the City of Milwaukee and the federal government we announced a plan to END chronic homelessness in three years using the “Housing First” model. “Housing First” is based on the concept that stable housing is a first and primary need. We then provide people additional services on their terms. This national model has very successful and dramatically reduces public service costs. Today we are ahead of schedule and have helped more than 100 people find stable housing and start to rebuild their lives.
Because the County is in significantly better shape now than it was five years ago, we will be able to continue to restore and improve the departments through which the County can most directly address the critical issues are facing. We are always looking for ways to take the lead and put a stake in the ground like we did with our homelessness project – not just decrease but END chronic homelessness.