County OKs funds for ‘Opportunity’

by Timothy Bowman

New help is available for mentally ill persons who are homeless or in danger of being homeless in South Lake Tahoe.

The El Dorado County Board of Supervisors approved the allocation of $672,802 of state funds for the Tahoe Opportunity Project Tuesday.

It is an outreach program that utilizes local agencies to address problems mentally ill persons experience in South Lake Tahoe.

The program was tested last year in Stanislaus, Los Angeles and Sacramento counties with promising results, according to El Dorado County Mental Health Department Director Kathleen Burne. This year the California State Legislature will fund programs in counties throughout California.

“This program started last year as a pilot program and they were given funding to find out if you could reduce homelessness and incarceration of mentally ill homeless people,” Burne said. “It was very successful and the legislature allocated $52 million this year to expand the program to 23 other counties.”

The Tahoe Opportunity Project, which will be based out of South Lake Tahoe, is the only one of its kind in El Dorado County. Burne said Tahoe is good for the program because of the history of cooperation between South Shore organizations.

“We applied for funds solely for South Lake Tahoe,” Burne said. “(The Tahoe Opportunity Project) requires a lot of collaboration to make this successful and South Lake Tahoe has a lot of interagency cooperation.”

Organizations participating in the program around South Shore include social services, the probation office, veterans services, community services, the El Dorado County Sheriff and Jail, the Sierra Recovery Center, area churches and the South Lake Tahoe Police Department.

These private and public agencies were chosen because they come into frequent contact with mentally ill persons. According to data provided by the county mental health department, these agencies identify about 600 people annually they consider to be at risk. The project funding is enough to provide service for 50 people for eight months.

“It is expected to be ongoing,” Burne said. “What (state legislators) need to see is that it is successful. In the end, if this is working, it will continue. It is paid for when you are not experiencing the mental health problems in the jails.”

Participating agencies will share data with the Tahoe Opportunity Project to identify mentally ill persons who are at risk of homelessness.

“This is an outreach program,” Burne said. “We will actually be out in the community. We hope to have a liaison in the courtroom and the jails to identify people who would be appropriate for the program.”

The Tahoe Opportunity Project will provide help to persons in need through referrals and giving vouchers. Burne said the program seeks to address a wide range of problems mentally ill persons face in Tahoe.

“It is a whatever-it-takes program,” Burne said. “We need a way in the county to be able to pay for it. The normal county way of paying for things doesn’t work when you want to go to the grocery store, so we will provide vouchers. It is really looking at the whole person. Keeping them out of the hospital, jail, off the streets and putting them in housing. All of those things that you can’t normally do in a mental health department because you don’t have the funding.”

Sgt. Steve O’Brien of the South Tahoe Police Department said officers are frequently asked to deal with problems involving mentally ill persons.

“We answer mental health problems on an average of two or three times a week,” O’Brien said. “One of our biggest problems is when we take a person to Barton for mental evaluation and then (the police) have to transfer them to Placerville for further evaluation. If there’s someplace locally this could be done it would sure eliminate 100 miles of driving. There are always those that are right on the border, and to give them a place to stay would not only be a great help to the police department but to the community.”

The program is supposed to start immediately. County Mental Health Program Coordinator for Case Management Gary Davidson said the program had already received the names of some potential candidates as of Wednesday.

“We have a lot of people at risk of being homeless,” Davidson said. “I have been talking to people today and I have gotten about 20 names. We are expecting to have a couple of people by next week.”

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