Saving lives, fostering hope

New funding expands mental health services for homeless

Jeorge Logan, foreground, talks about the changes in his life as a result of state funding for community based mental health services for the homeless. To his right are Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and state Department of Mental Health Director Stephen Mayberg. Steinberg authored AB 2034, which authorized the release of $54.9 million for additional services in Sacramento and 25 other counties.

Jeorge Logan, foreground, talks about the changes in his life as a result of state funding for community based mental health services for the homeless. To his right are Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and state Department of Mental Health Director Stephen Mayberg. Steinberg authored AB 2034, which authorized the release of $54.9 million for additional services in Sacramento and 25 other counties.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Jeorge Logan speaks easily, with a sincere passion and warmth. His 6-foot-1-inch, 190-pound frame leans slightly back in his chair; his short, well-maintained dreadlocks frame a handsome face.

Composed and articulate, the 35-year-old Logan bears little resemblance to the man who was, less than one year ago, terminated from a $35,000-per-year job at Pacific Bell, sleeping in his truck, 125 pounds and addicted to crack—all results of living with an undiagnosed mental illness. Although his addiction would lead him quickly down the path of unemployment, homelessness and near-death, it would ultimately prove to be his salvation.

To understand Logan’s descent and ultimate rebirth, one must first get a glimpse into the illness that preceded the spiral. Logan lives with bipolar disorder—a chemical imbalance in the brain that produces manic highs and devastating lows. His moods, even on medication, cycle rapidly, with highs and lows coming in shifts every five weeks. About every six months, he braces for a severe depression.

Yet before being diagnosed in December of last year, Logan’s knowledge of mental illness was limited to the many stereotypes that still persist in society: “I thought my problem was drugs. Like so many other people, I thought that if you couldn’t see someone’s disability, then they didn’t have one.”

Logan started and stopped a string of jobs over the years. Becoming cranky, irritable and short-tempered at the end of his mood cycles, Logan says he would inevitably act on those feelings and get fired or walk out.

“I never realized something was wrong,” Logan says. “I just thought people got on my nerves.”

In fact, prior to his employment with Pacific Bell, Logan says he had never kept a job longer than six months. Additionally, the severe depressions that came about every six months would spur Logan to look for greener pastures, mistakenly believing that it was the “place that’s doing it.” Between the ages of 22 and 35, he lived in nine different states.

Things seemed to stabilize, however, during his tenure at Pacific Bell. Logan says in two years, he had not missed a day’s work, but in the month leading up to his termination, he was tardy eight times and absent for five days.

His firing on March 31, 1999, brought other concerns—and not the ones typically associated with losing one’s income source.

“I had hooked up with this girl, who I thought would fix everything that was wrong in my life,” he says now, shaking his head and chuckling in disbelief. “And she said, ‘Try this.’ ”

“This” was crack, and it quickly depleted his savings, leaving him without money for rent, which got him evicted. He still had his truck and began sleeping there, although that soon was repossessed when he failed to make the payments.

Seemingly hitting bottom, Logan reached out to an old high school friend living in Sacramento who agreed to pay for Logan’s stay in a local live-in detox facility and recovery home. He eventually took a job there and despite relapsing for a time, he continued living and working at the men’s facility. Another relapse, however, took Logan back to the streets—one week before Thanksgiving.

“I left everything I owned there,” he says. “I was walking around with the clothes on my back and no money in my pocket.”

He still had no knowledge that a biological brain disorder was fueling his desire to self-medicate with street drugs.

Finding hope
As recently as two years ago, policy makers, public health officials and law enforcement agencies had scant resources at their disposal to substantively deal with the estimated 50,000 mentally ill homeless people who cycled endlessly from the streets, into hospitals and jails and back again.

Those in the trenches readily admit that after 30 years of neglect, the state’s community-based mental health system seemed more like a threadbare patchwork quilt than a safety net. Indeed, for decades, the problem of the mentally ill homeless defied remedy—at the cost of great suffering, social decay and wasted taxpayer money.

“What we were doing before wasn’t even a Band-Aid,” says Mark Montgomery, program manager at El Hogar Mental Health and Community Service Center, Inc., at 10th and G streets in Sacramento.

Yet the landscape began to change last November with the release of $10 million in state funds for three pilot projects created by Assembly Bill 34, which was sponsored by Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.

In Sacramento, AB 34 funded El Hogar’s River City Community Homeless Program, along with Turning Point’s Homeless Intervention Project, each of which had 100 slots available to clients. Sacramento also used some of its funding to start Project H.O.P.E.—a mobile outreach team pairing police officers and social workers who have direct contact with the homeless population and who act as a conduit for the two programs.

The task statewide: Bring 1,116 homeless mentally ill individuals off the street and into treatment, providing comprehensive and intensive “wrap-around” services to address not only psychiatric needs, but also shelter, food, clothing, general medical care and chemical dependency. Continuing education, job skills development and assistance in applying for Social Security and Supplemental Security Income for those who need it is also provided.

JoAnn Asaro, now 50, was one of the first clients served by the River City project, coming to the program Nov. 24, 1999—just 12 days after it began.

At the time, Asaro says, she was nine months sober, living in a recovery home for women in Sacramento and volunteering at Loaves and Fishes in Midtown. But the succession of racing thoughts, paranoia and depression that had plagued her since 1979 didn’t abate when she stopped drinking. Today, she remembers feeling that “something was wrong”—but being scared to admit that to anyone.

“I was scared … my friends wouldn’t accept it,” she says.

She was growing more frustrated and fearful when she bumped into Montgomery in the Loaves and Fishes complex. She told him her story, although she hadn’t heard of the River City project and had no idea who he was.

What happened next is the part of the program that most excites Montgomery: In a matter of hours, Asaro was assessed and diagnosed by a psychiatrist, given medication to help begin to control her symptoms, found a new home and was set up with counseling appointments and transportation options.

Most important, Asaro says, she was given support.

“Having that support gave me hope; it gave me another chance,” she says, tears coming to her green eyes. “There’s a poster that says, ‘Failing is not falling down—failing is not getting up again.’ I really like that. I feel blessed.”

Asaro has not only gotten up, she’s virtually sprinting into her new life. On June 5—her 50th birthday—she enrolled in classes at Cosumnes River College. She’s on track, she says, to transfer to American River College in fall 2001 to earn her certification as a drug and alcohol counselor. And, she says, she’s begun work on a self-help/inspirational book.

“This is a whole new life,” she says happily as she compares her life now with the previous two decades, when severe mood swings caused by her bipolar disorder wreaked havoc on her life, work and relationships.

Transformations like Asaro’s are reported time and again by community mental health workers in Sacramento, Stanislaus and Los Angeles counties—the three original pilot program counties created by AB 34. Post-enrollment outcomes of the pilot projects since their inception show a 64.2 percent reduction in hospitalizations and a 73 percent drop in the number of days spent incarcerated. Additionally, the number of days spent homeless dropped nearly 59 percent.

Studies show that for the state’s $10 million investment, taxpayers saved $20 million in incarceration and hospitalization costs in the first year of the program.

On Oct. 27, Steinberg and other state officials announced the release of an additional $54.9 million—enough to expand wrap-around service programs to 26 counties. Sacramento’s take, $5.2 million, will fund an additional 100 slots, split evenly between the River City and Turning Point programs.

“I’m not crazy”
When Jeorge Logan was accepted into the River City Community Homeless Program, he admittedly didn’t know much about the services offered.

“I just saw there was a [permanent] bed for me, and I thought, ‘great,’ ” he says.

When a doctor’s first assessment of him resulted in a diagnosis of mental illness, Logan says he was astounded.

“I’m thinking, ‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m an intelligent guy. I’m not crazy.’ She said, ‘No, you’re not crazy—you have a chemical imbalance.’ So, I said, ‘OK. … I’ll try this.’ ”

But like many who struggle to understand and then manage such illnesses, Logan’s trials did not immediately end with the proper diagnosis, medication and support. In fact, he would go back to drugs, refuse to take his psychiatric medication and end up getting shot in Oak Park over a stolen vehicle before things got better.

“That was really a wake-up call,” Logan says now.

Following the shooting, Logan transferred to the Harvest House—a Christian Men’s recovery home. He got clean and sober—for good this time, he says—and began to look seriously at the brain disorder that had so disrupted his life.

“It forced me to have structure and to get clean, and that allowed me to look at the bipolar disorder and begin to understand and manage my symptoms for the first time,” he says.

“I always thought I was the black sheep. My self-esteem was very low. But Dr. Montgomery said, ‘Jeorge, we see something in you that’s worth caring about. Whatever it takes—that’s what we’ll do for you,’ and [he] meant it,” says Jeorge.

Montgomery nods when his statement is relayed back to him. “That’s it, exactly,” he says. “This legislation is designed to fill in the gaps, to make the interventions before the client goes back to old behaviors, to the hospital, the streets or to jail.

“I’ve had the pleasure of watching Jeorge go from being an individual to having connectedness [with others]. Jeorge’s desire to achieve is amazing; he’s relentless in his ability to identify and keep track of his symptoms. He’s given himself permission to succeed,” says Montgomery.

And now Logan wants to give back.

“I believe God brought me through this to where I am now so I can relate to other people, so I’d like to [reach out] to others and say ‘Hey, I’ve been there. … Here’s what I did’ and show them how they can make this work.”

Logan has already started being something of an unofficial ambassador for the program, sharing the stage with Steinberg and others during the recent press conference announcing the program’s expansion.

Logan’s immediate goal, he says, is to re-enter the workforce and to get an apartment of his own, exiting the program so that someone else can come in.

“I’m going to the next step. For people who say, ‘Oh, it’s just another program,’ I think they need to take a look at people who came in, like me, who had everything they owned in their arms and now are ready to go back to the workforce and pay taxes to pay for programs like this.

“If it weren’t for this program, I’d probably be dead or in jail.”