Santa Cruz, county jointly expand mental health outreach program

Santa Cruz Sentinel:  06/28/2012

SANTA CRUZ – With the state shifting greater responsibility for housing inmates to county jails, county and city leaders agreed this week to nearly double the amount of staff assigned to a mental health outreach program targeting downtown.

Officials say pursuing and sustaining treatment is the best way to keep out of trouble people with serious mental illness who also are at risk of committing crime.

“The right place for the mentally ill is not in jail and not in the streets acting out,” said County Supervisor Neal Coonerty, who spearheaded the expansion. “It’s in treatment.”

In adopting the county budget Thursday, the Board of Supervisors approved Coonerty’s request for nearly $275,000 in new funding to expand the MOST program, which stands for Maintaining Ongoing Stability through Treatment. Tuesday, the City Council granted his request to dedicate $80,000.

MOST pairs outreach workers with police to perform crisis intervention and provide ongoing case management for clients. Probation and corrections officials, as well as psychiatrist and a licensed vocation nurse, also are part of the team that will grow in July from 4.75 full-time equivalent employees to 8.5.

The program launched in July 2007 with funding from California Department of Corrections, but the county had to reduce it in 2008 amid the state’s deepening economic crisis. During the program’s first year, the number of total days people identified as mentally ill stayed in jail dropped from about 3,200 to about 150, the county reported.

Coonerty, a member of the county’s mental health advisory board, sought to expand the program after the Legislature last year passed Assembly Bill 109, which redirects many nonviolent offenders away from the overburdened prison system and in to county jails or diversion programs.

“With AB 109, jail beds will be at a premium,” Coonerty said.

The MOST expansion also comes seven weeks after a parolee who spent time in corrections facilities for the mentally ill allegedly stabbed a woman to death in broad daylight on Broadway. The man charged with murdering 38-year-old downtown store owner Shannon Collins is due in court Aug. 13 for a preliminary hearing.

“Somebody that is violent belongs in jail, but if someone is breaking rules and doing unlawful things because they are off their meds and acting out mentally, we have a way to wrap them into treatment,” Coonerty said.

County officials say Maintaining Ongoing Stability through Treatment will be able to assist about up to 90 clients on an ongoing basis, rather than the 40 or so served now. While outreach workers and police can identify people needing treatment, jail, probation and court officials also can make referrals to the program.

To pay for the expansion, the county will tap its general fund, as well as state money designed to help counties and jail officials absorb more inmates. The county’s total contribution for the program, including new funds and in-kind support, will be $1 million.

The city’s contribution also will come from its general fund. Santa Cruz has spent $75,000 annually to support the county’s downtown outreach worker, but the money came from redevelopment funding eliminated by the state last year.

City officials say the outreach worker has been critical in connecting mentally ill people with housing, counseling and other services.

“It’s so obvious where the good work that has been done has had a good outcome,” City Councilwoman Lynn Robinson said.

Also Tuesday, the council approved $25,000 in new funding for a major expansion of Homeward Bound, a program that provides bus tickets to homeless people who want to go to another community where they have confirmed support. Operated by the Homeless Services Center, the program is currently funded through a $5,000 anonymous donation.