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Successful Tahoe mental health program to continue despite budget cuts

Noel Stack, Mountain Democrat

PLACERVILLE ” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s blue pencil nearly erased a mental health program in Tahoe that is considered a shining star.

With a 99 percent success rate in getting mentally ill people off the street, the Tahoe Opportunity Project helped hundreds of homeless people rebuild their lives, gain employment and find a sense of self-worth.

But the signed 2007-08 budget cut the lifeline. AB 2034 funding has been eliminated; $733,440 gone. El Dorado County Supervisor Norma Santiago called the action a “punishment for good behavior.”

“My gosh, it’s so successful. Why don’t we stop the funding?” Santiago marveled at the governor’s action.

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But rather than throw their hands up at the misfortune, county Mental Health Director John Bachman and staff made a plan: they have 51 people enrolled in TOP and thanks to rollover money no one gets left behind this fiscal year.

“We’re going to work toward self-sufficiency for those five individuals,” Bachman said.

For 2008-09 things will change in Tahoe, but not entirely.

On the West Slope, Mental Health operates a program called Prospect Place. Modeled after TOP it also brings together resources for the homeless mentally ill, Bachman explained. Next year, TOP is out and Prospect Place will expand to Tahoe and take its place.

As Shakespeare put it “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

The reason behind the program switch is simple: funding.

The Mental Health Services Act, a voter approved initiative, allows mental health departments to use this new stream of cash only for new programs and program expansions, Bachman said. The money can’t be used to fund existing programs.

MHSA money is coming in at a “rapid clip, while traditional funding for other mental health programs has flat-lined,” Bachman said. The demand for mental health services outpaces any funding, he added.

Next year, Santiago said, it’s just a matter of transition to ensure that services to the clients in need continue.

Prospect Place provides homeless mentally ill clients with psychiatric services, life skills training, substance abuse treatment (in- and out-patient) and services to keep the mentally ill out of jail.

The treatment and services offered, whether they be through TOP or Prospect Place, reduces jail recidivism, Bachman said, explaining that about half of TOP’s clients were referred to the Mental Health program after finding themselves a part of the judicial system.

“We’re not talking about serious crimes and felonies here,” Bachman said, explaining that many were arrested for things like petty theft because they couldn’t afford what they needed.

Many in the judicial community support Mental Health’s position to keep TOP’s funding because they recognized its success, Bachman said. With a name change and a few tweaks, that success has a chance to continue.


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