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Mentally ill homeless released from jail may get housing help

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Inmates, as seen above, slept on cots two years ago when the jail population hit 2,800 residents, well beyond its design capacity of 2,236. The population has fallen substantially since then, but county officials hope to continue the reduction with a new program aimed at helping mentally ill homeless people stay out of jail. (Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/Albuquerque Journal)

Inmates, as seen above, slept on cots two years ago when the jail population hit 2,800 residents, well beyond its design capacity of 2,236. The population has fallen substantially since then, but county officials hope to continue the reduction with a new program aimed at helping mentally ill homeless people stay out of jail. (Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

Homeless people struggling with mental illness are often released from jail with nowhere to go, and before long they end up behind bars again, officials say.

A proposal going before the Bernalillo County Commission aims to change that.

The commission on Tuesday will consider a $1.1 million plan to hire social service agencies to provide 75 beds in the community for homeless people leaving the jail system.

Albuquerque city councilors have already endorsed the idea in principle, and they may consider authorizing money for the project later this summer. With city funds, the program might expand beyond the initial 75 beds.

The goal is to build a low- or no-cost “supportive housing program” for homeless people struggling with mental illness. It will target inmates leaving jail.

More than half of the people in the Metropolitan Detention Center receive psychiatric services. There are no firm figures on how many inmates are homeless.

“This initiative is not only the humane thing to do, it’s a much more cost-effective approach than what we as a community are doing now,” County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins said in an interview.

Many inmates with mental-health trouble, she said, “have nowhere to go when they’re released so they end up back in jail getting treatment at the highest possible cost.”

The beds would be scattered throughout the community, perhaps as simply an expansion of programs already run by private nonprofit groups.

Commissioner Wayne Johnson said he likes the idea generally, but important questions remain. In particular, he said, who will provide the services and where will they do it?

The county legislation doesn’t identify any particular sites. If funding is approved, county executives will issue a request for proposals from groups that want to provide the beds.

“I’m not sure this is ready for prime time,” Johnson said.

The county must take care to ensure it’s not simply “throwing money out and saying here’s $1.1 million to create a program,” he said.

Anita Cordova, director of development, planning and evaluation at Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless, said groups like hers have built relationships with landlords throughout the city. The 75 new beds, then, would be “scattered,” not concentrated in one spot, she said.

“We think it’s a great idea,” she said. “Housing matched to services is the best way to help people experiencing homelessness and mental illness. It’s a much better solution than incarceration.”

The program could be running by October, Hart Stebbins said.

“We want to work with existing community organizations,” she said.

In addition to a bed, participants would receive counseling and other services to help them transition back to society. The service providers would be expected to work with inmates while they are still in custody and help them transition into community services upon discharge.

The proposal comes as Bernalillo County faces a federal court mandate to reduce the jail population. The local jail system has faced chronic overcrowding for years. A federal civil-rights lawsuit filed in 1995, and still pending today, centers on conditions inside the jail.

The county now pays other jails in New Mexico to house some of its inmates to ease crowding in the Metropolitan Detention Center. It costs about $1.6 million a year, for example, to house 75 inmates in other jails.

A staff report prepared for county commissioners says the supportive housing program is expected to help reduce the jail population. A referral system would be set up to identify inmates who could participate safely. A judge would have to sign off on releasing them into the program.

Commissioners will be asked to commit $1.1 million to the program in the coming year. The money will come from “budget realignments and reallocations,” according to a county staff report. It would be one-time funding, with the goal of building the project into the base budget for future years. Federal funding is a possibility, too, according to the county.

The city is also preparing to spend more to help people struggling with mental illness and homelessness. City councilors last month added about $2.9 million to the mayor’s budget proposal for programs that help the homeless or provide other social services.

In recent months, the council has heard repeatedly from activists demanding better treatment of Albuquerque’s homeless population. In March, city police shot a mentally ill, homeless man in the back, sparking protests throughout the city.

Earlier this week, the City Council adopted a resolution stating support for a joint effort with the county to help mentally ill and homeless inmates released from jail.

How much funding, if any, the city makes available will depend on recommendations from a task force, which includes city councilors. The task force is evaluating city strategies for helping people who are mentally ill.

Councilor Isaac Benton said the plan to provide beds “would really help with the revolving door – the people going in and out of jail.”

He and Brad Winter co-sponsored the council’s resolution supporting the county project.

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