Paul Wellman

Every summer’s budget deliberation before the county supervisors requires some injection of Kabuki theater; this week, a group of about 30 longtime mental-health advocates showed up dressed in red shirts and wearing red scarves ​— ​almost rabbinical in cut ​— ​draped loosely over their shoulders. While some in attendance struggled to make sense of the fashion statement being made, the group’s broader purpose could have not been clearer: Don’t put any more money into new jails. Invest heavily on housing for mentally ill people instead.

Specifically, the group ​— ​spearheaded by activists with Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) and Families ACT! ​— ​demanded supervisors set aside $500,000 as seed money to launch an ambitious initiative to provide 132 additional beds for those in mental-health crisis. The roughly 20 speakers took pains to praise the county’s new Mental Health czar Alice Gleghorn and her efforts to reform ​— ​“systems change” being the operative buzzword ​— ​what’s been the county’s most chronically dysfunctional agency, but they also chided the powers that be for not spending nearly enough to keep mentally ill and drug-addicted persons in restorative programs and out of County Jail.

Maureen Earls of CLUE charged the county’s general fund contribution to mental-health programs was only one-third of a host of comparable counties’; it’s also a third less than what county administrators 10 years ago projected it should be now. Earls and crew cited a slew of studies and statistics showing, for example, that it costs $19,000 more a year to house a mentally ill inmate in the jail than it does to provide therapeutic treatment. They castigated Sheriff Bill Brown’s efforts to open two new jail facilities in North County with annual operating costs hovering at the $20 million mark.

Giving the red-scarf agenda some political star power were former Santa Barbara city councilmember Grant House and former Superior Court judge George Eskin ​— ​who spoke in absentia. They noted the county’s jail population had dropped significantly due to the lowest crime rate in 40 years and the statewide passage of Proposition 47 last fall, which reduced six crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. “We need to invest in safe and stable housing and treatment for our mentally ill neighbors so that they do not end up in the jail,” Eskin wrote. The problem, of course, is that such housing is in extremely short supply.

To rectify that, the group demanded the supes authorize $25,000 to study 11 county-owned sites potentially appropriate for 32 units of crisis care beds and another 100 units of “residential support” housing. They also wanted the supes to set aside $475,000 in “pre-development” and planning costs for the possible north and south county campuses. The county would need this investment, they argued, when competing for the state and federal tax credits needed to finance so ambitious an undertaking.

County Supervisor Doreen Farr responded most directly, asking several gently probing questions to determine whether the dollar amounts requested corresponded to the actual cost to get the job done.

In a media event the following day, Gleghorn ​— ​accompanied by about eight mental-health staffers ​— ​gave a detailed update on mental-health initiatives long in the hopper that have just, or nearly, come to fruition. While none have the scope and scale hoped for by those in the red scarves, Gleghorn noted, they were already providing relief to those most in need. This July, an eight-bed facility will open on the South Coast, providing 30-day residential care for mentally ill persons. In November, she said, another eight-bed “crisis stabilization” facility would open, offering 23-hour respite care for those on the brink of posing harm to themselves or others. Both, she said, would help alleviate crushing demand for the county’s involuntary psychiatric lockdown ​— ​the Psychiatric Health Facility (PHF).

That facility has been overwhelmed with court-ordered referrals of defendants deemed incompetent to stand trial. This has required Gleghorn to rent far more out-of-county involuntary-hold beds than expected, blasting a $2 million hole in her budget. The trick, Gleghorn said, was getting to those in need before their crisis got too acute. To this end, she announced the recent formation of “crisis triage teams” ​— ​in Santa Barbara, Lompoc, and Santa Maria ​— ​charged with seeking out and serving those in acute need before an involuntary hold became necessary. Gleghorn added that she’s now fully staffed three “mobile crisis teams,” who work closely with law-enforcement officials, targeting those whose behavior might qualify them for jail or the PHF (pronounced “puff”) unit. Gleghorn also noted her department just concluded a four-day training of 39 law-enforcement personnel on how to respond to the mental-health challenges they encounter.


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