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Seriously Mentally Ill In Arizona Often Struggle To Find Housing

Published: Thursday, March 24, 2016 - 5:34pm
Updated: Thursday, March 24, 2016 - 11:24pm
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(Photo by Lauren Gilger - KJZZ)
Cheri Vansant holds a picture of her two sons when they were young.
Lauren Gilger/KJZZ
Nancy Barto

Last January, Cheri Vansant’s son disappeared for a month.

“Every time the phone rings, you think that’s what you’re going to hear, that they found him somewhere,” she said.

Vansant’s son is 39 years old and has been battling with mental illness since he was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was 21. This wasn’t the first time he has disappeared, and she fears it won't be the last. She asked us not to use her son’s name in this story to protect his privacy.

“He would go through all of his money in a week, and then he would be in and out of homeless shelters or sleeping outside, digging in garbage cans, trying to find food, begging for food,” she said. “Then he would just get so desperate that he eventually would call us.”

Vansant said her son is under a court order for treatment, which requires him by law to take medication for his mental illness. But for almost a decade, he was stuck in a destructive pattern, she said.

“We started this back and forth, you know; he’d go off of his meds; he’d get really, really sick,” she said. As the pattern continued, he got worse.

“Each time he’d go off and then come back on, he didn’t come quite back to his baseline. Each time, he would get a little bit sicker,” Vansant said.

One of her biggest challenges became finding him an appropriate place to live.

“We worked and worked and worked to try to get him into a living situation where he would have more supervision and get some counseling and that they would see that he stayed on his medications, but there wasn’t anything available,” she said.

At one point, things got so bad he checked himself into the hospital and asked for help. He wanted to go into a group home. But, again, there was no place available for him, Vansant said.

For months, she heard the same thing: There’s no bed.

“Dozens of times we heard there’s no bed available,” she said.

Finding appropriate housing for the seriously mentally ill is a common problem in Arizona.

According to a recent study by Arizona State University’s College of Public Service and Community Solutions, people within the system say limited housing for those with mental illness is the most pressing problem they face.

Mercy Maricopa Integrated Care, the Regional Behavioral Health Authority in Maricopa County, said there’s a need for more state and federal dollars to support housing subsidy programs.

It’s an issue that’s gotten the attention of Republican State Senator Nancy Barto, who spent much of the summer in 2015 learning about the challenges facing the seriously mentally ill in Arizona.

“We definitely need more 24-hour supervised group homes, and we need good ones,” Barto said.

She said the state will spend more than $600 million on mental health services in fiscal year 2017.

Funding for housing for the seriously mentally ill has increased in recent years to about $25 million in fiscal year 2016, according to the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, or AHCCCS. 

“That doesn’t even take into account what we’re spending in the ER’s, through AHCCCS, or in the prison system,” she said.

The state spends an estimated $16 million on behavioral health in state-run prisons, according to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee. Barto said we need to be smarter about where those dollars go.

“I think we’re spending our funding in the wrong places,” she said.

But it hasn’t increased enough, according to Tad Gary, chief clinical officer with Mercy Maricopa Integrated Care (MMIC).

MMIC has put about 3,000 of the county’s seriously mentally ill people in subsidized housing and wrapped intensive services around them to help keep them there as part of its supported housing treatment model. Gary said that without supported housing and the services that come with it, it’s very hard to keep patients on track.

“It’s very difficult to provide someone their physical health care, you know, to manage their diabetes when at night they’re going to a shelter,” he said.

That’s a community problem, said Blythe FitzHarris, adult system of care administrator with MMIC. She oversees outpatient services for adults with serious mental illness there.

“It’s not a challenge that Maricopa alone experiences - it’s nationwide,” she said.

Right now, the wait list for Section 8 Affordable Housing vouchers in Maricopa County is five to 10 years long and has nearly 4,000 people on it.

There are two sides to the coin, Gary said, when it comes to housing for the seriously mentally ill - Housing subsidies and the support and services that go with it.

MMIC is expanding those services because they’re Medicaid covered, he said. But housing subsidies are not. So, without more funding, more housing for the seriously mentally ill simply isn’t possible.

“They live within this community and need greater things than just these covered services and, really, that’s where the subsidies come in and are so critical to addressing individuals' needs,” he said.

It’s not likely that more funding will come, at least not from the state. Arizona allocated more than $16 million for supported housing in 2016, according to AHCCCS. Senator Barto said the legislative budget probably can’t provide for more right now.

It took seven years on a Section 8 waiting list, but, in 2012, Vansant’s son got an apartment of his own, as well as an Assertive Community Treatment Team dedicated to keeping him on his medications and helping him succeed.

But, Vansant said having a place to live only helps so much.

“It keeps you off the street, but when a person is delusional and they think that the place they live is unsafe, then they’re going to leave, and that’s what my son does when he’s not well,” she said.

She said her son has been doing well for the past three months, and she’s hopeful for the first time in a long time that he may break the pattern. In any event, she’s not giving up on him.

“He’s my son, and you just don’t give up on people that you love."

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