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Mental Health Advocates Debate $3 Million State Grant

Funds Would Expand Alternative Treatment Programs

Mental health advocates were invited to offer input on a $3 million state grant for expanded alternative treatment programs just two weeks before it was due. They did not say, “Better late than never.”

At the County Administration Building on Thursday, Behavior Wellness’s Suzanne Grimmesey told the agitated crowd this grant is just one opportunity to treat people suffering from mental illness who often find themselves incarcerated.

The grant opportunity is derived from money California has saved in the two years since voters passed Prop 47. The measure reduced certain theft and drug charges to misdemeanors, in turn releasing thousands of low-level offenders from overcrowded county jails. The idea was that the saved money would be distributed to counties so it could be spent on treatments specifically designed by mental health professionals.

If granted, Grimmesey explained the proposal would set up a pilot program known as PADS (Post-Arrest Diversion and Support Program) to serve 40 people per year in South County. About a third of those would receive some assistance for housing costs. This money would vary depending on need, she said.

Advocates took issue with the fact that the program appeared not to focus on substance abusers, exactly the population Prop 47 was intended to target. Deedra Edgar, a deputy public defender and longtime mental health advocate, emerged during the meeting as the most outspoken speaker sitting in the back of the room. She said substance abusers “are the people who get in the criminal justice system and they don’t have a place to go in this county.”

Some critics were dubious that a draft of the proposal has not been made public; Grimmesey said in an interview afterward the document would be disseminated once it is complete.

Advocates also complained the program would spend too much on too few people. Specifically, Edgar said, the $3 million sum translates to about $75,000 per person. “Forty [people] doesn’t really seem like an appropriate model,” she said.

Others positively noted an evaluation would be built into the program, but Edgar said 40 people are nowhere near enough to see real changes.

In passing, one person mentioned that the one-year-old Crisis Stabilization Unit (CSU), which has space for eight people to check themselves in for 23 hours, is not at capacity.

The most pointed question, though, may be, what happens when the money runs out in 36 months? Undersheriff Barney Melekian noted that is about the time the construction of the northern branch jail will be complete, which will alleviate the overcrowded the main jail and offer progressive programing for chronic offenders.

One mental health activist railed on the efforts and said it was around 25 years ago when everyone was falsely promising compromise and collaboration. One person asked, “What happened?” Another person chimed in, “The grant ran out.” At that, most in the fairly tense room chuckled.

The meeting only lasted about an hour because a poetry reading was scheduled to take place in the board hearing room. Grimmesey implored attendees to sign up for the local advisory committee, stressing this meeting is just the beginning of the conversation. There will be a similar meeting on Tuesday at 4 p.m. in Santa Maria at the Board of Supervisors Gallery.

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