Florida Counties Helping the Mentally Ill

December 18, 2015

By Matt Chase
Miami Herald

Alarmed at the millions in taxpayer dollars drained managing the mentally ill and the homeless when they run afoul of the law, many Florida counties are uniting to seek a reset on how the state deals with these troubled offenders. County leaders are right — the majority of them need help, and jail is not the place where they will get it.

In the upcoming legislative session, the Florida Association of Counties wants lawmakers to overhaul the way the criminal-justice system deals with this vulnerable population.

“We need to decriminalize homelessness and mental illness,” Broward Commissioner Barbara Sharief told the Editorial Board this week. Ms. Sharief is president of FAC. Several remedial bills are being offered up in Tallahassee, and we commend FAC for taking a lead on this crucial issue.

The association says increased funding and coordination of programs and services for persons with behavioral health issues is needed to improve their overall health and quality of life, and to reduce the burden on county jails, courts, hospital emergency rooms — and taxpayers’ wallets.

The plight of mentally ill residents in Florida, where comprehensive care is dismal, has been an ongoing challenge. Florida still ranks a shameful 49th in per-capita funding for mental-health programs — set to be $420 million this year, same as last year. The state spends $40 per mentally ill person, compared to a national average of $122. Yet an estimated 3.9 million Floridians have some type of mental-health challenge.

The additional money indirectly helps agencies like Camillus House in Miami, which offers shelter to homeless people, many suffering from substance abuse and psychiatric problems, Executive Director Shed Boren told the Editorial Board, which this week toured its new campus. Camillus House, through programs like its landmark Lazarus Project, actively seeks out the mentally ill among the homeless population and directs them to social-service programs.

Florida’s mental-health funding flows through multiple state agencies and other organizations, including $1 billion a year through the Department of Children & Families. But too often, Floridians challenged by mental illness do not receive the care they need in the most effective setting.

If Florida lawmakers come through with appropriate funding, and they should, Camillus House and similar agencies across the state would play crucial roles. Toward that goal, FAC said it will focus its legislative efforts in these areas:

▪ Behavioral health services: FAC will support efforts to increase supportive housing, employment and education initiatives for people behavioral health issues.

▪ Baker Act: The organization will push for appropriate funding for mental-health and substance-abuse crisis beds statewide.

▪ Homelessness: FAC seeks a dedicated state funding source for homeless programs.

FAC says that Florida must stop providing inadequate hodgepodge care for mentally ill residents only in emergencies, which can turn into law-enforcement issues with prison sentences or deadly tragedies when they clash with police. Gov. Scott has proposed in the 2016 budget $19 million to better coordinate all programs. That’s a solid first step.

Lawmakers should heed FAC’s advice and improve Florida’s healthcare system. It will help save taxpayer money and repair broken lives.

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