State budget

Mentally ill face eviction

ON THE ROAD AGAIN<br>Until recently, Ki Smith had a home in Red Bluff, where he was helped by Tehama Health Services’ AB 2034 program. With the program in jeopardy, he moved to Chico’s Torres Shelter last month.

Until recently, Ki Smith had a home in Red Bluff, where he was helped by Tehama Health Services’ AB 2034 program. With the program in jeopardy, he moved to Chico’s Torres Shelter last month.

Photo By Bryce Benson

If Governor Schwarzenegger has his way, a highly successful program that serves the mentally ill will lose its funding, making nearly 5,000 people homeless—again.

In fact, some people have already moved out of housing, preparing for the program’s demise if the governor’s budget proposal is approved.

Ki Smith found stability in life through the “AB 2034 Program,” a $55 million annual fund for mentally ill homeless people created by legislation authored in 2003 by then-Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). Smith stayed in one city longer than six months for the first time in more than two decades, living in Red Bluff from September 2005 until last month, when he took up residence at the Torres Community Shelter in Chico.

He moved only because he was told the program was going to shut down, he said. Smith chose the Chico shelter because he remembered that one of the people who helped him in Red Bluff two years ago moved there only months before him.

Becky Rivera worked as a case manager for clients in Tehama County’s AB 2034 Program before taking a job as services coordinator at Chico’s shelter. She has seen what the program can do and is worried about its being cut.

“We’re already seeing the consequences,” Rivera said. “People who were once in housing are back to being homeless.”

Smith is a veteran who suffers from post-traumatic-stress disorder and depression. He was in Biloxi, Miss., when Hurricane Katrina hit. The catastrophe on the Gulf Coast brought up memories from Oct. 19, 1979, when a hurricane killed 24 of his fellow marines stationed in Japan.

After Katrina, Smith did what he’d been doing for 20 years: He moved, eventually ending up in Red Bluff. There he checked in with Tehama Health Services because he needed to get back on his medication.

Through the AB 2034 Program, he got his meds—and he also worked together with other members, mowing county lawns, washing county cars and maintaining the rental properties in which the members lived.

The AB 2034 Program made housing a priority in helping this population, said Rick Reynolds, director of Support Employment Assistance Recovery Consumer Housing, or SEARCH, Butte County Behavioral Health’s AB 2034 outreach team, which stopped taking new clients in May.

Since the program deals with the mentally ill, it helps people buy the medications they need, Reynolds said. Then living finances are secured, either by helping them file for Social Security income or preparing them to be functional adults capable of working.

The AB 2034 program created a family of sorts for a population that had so little, Smith said. The members relied on each other, often calling each other when “thoughts got in their head.”

Paul Culp is one of those family members. The 46-year-old spent about two years in the program to regain control of his life, and now he gives back by advocating for its continuance.

After he ignored a diagnosis of bipolar syndrome when he was 37, Culp’s life spun out of control, he said. An accident at work landed him on disability, and by the time he was 44, Culp, who had worked full time since he was 15, was living beneath a bridge in Red Bluff.

On a day when dire thoughts of suicide and even killing his wife were floating around in his head, a California Highway Patrol officer providentially directed him to Tehama Health Services, where he too was helped by Rivera. Now, reunited with his two children and able to speak to his wife and mother, Culp has lobbied Sacramento lawmakers to maintain the AB 2034’s funding.

“I would have been dead or in jail without the program,” he said.

Culp is far from the only success. Statewide, the statistics for the program are astounding. The number of clients who were homeless decreased by 82 percent, and those who remained homeless spent about 70 percent less time on the streets than prior to being in the program, according to the California Mental Health Directors Association. There was also a two-thirds reduction in the number of days hospitalized and in the number of incarcerations.

For Butte County, Schwarzenegger’s budget cut would mean that 50 mentally ill men and women would return to the streets, Reynolds said. The county’s plan is to house them for as long as possible, but the SEARCH team has little choice but to kick people out when its accounts reach zero.

Tehama Health Services will do the same, and in time 24 mentally ill people will be homeless, said county Mental Health Director Ann Houghtby.

The state says cutting the program is a matter of fiscal responsibility.

“Because the state faces a significant budget deficit, the governor has to consider all programs, even programs that are popular and have good success,” said Kirsten Diechert, spokeswoman for the state Department of Mental Health.

Culp believes Schwarzenegger is being penny wise, pound foolish.

“It costs $12,000 a year to put someone through the program, and more than $50,000 a year for an inmate,” he said. “Incarcerations will increase without this program, so people are going to pay more to deal with the problem.”