Supervisor Kathryn Barger speaks during the State of the County address held at the Hyatt Regency Valencia on Wednesday. Dan Watson/The Signal

Barger hones in on homelessness, mental health

Homelessness was once again a central topic in this year’s State of the County address, this time with a heavy focus on mental health.

In her third State of the County address Wednesday at the Hyatt Regency Valencia, L.A. County 5th District Supervisor Kathryn Barger opened dialogue on the matter by saying, “It’s about coordinating together.”

There to share some of the ways the county is working with others to address homelessness as it connects to mental health were Dr. Jonathan Sherin, director of the Department of Mental Health, and Sachi Hamai, county’s chief executive officer.

“When it comes to issues of individuals who are homeless that have a serious mental health illness, as we all know, every day, that this is a massive issue,” said Sherin.

But a solution will be no easy feat as the county is facing what Sherin described as three major issues:

Right-sizing

The county’s resources are not “right-sized,” and it does not have enough long-term beds for treatment.

“That’s a huge problem because people need not just a weekend in a hospital, three days in a hospital — they need time to really stabilize,” said Sherin. “And they need to be connected up with the other resources that will actually help them become stable longer term.”

Efficiency among hospitals, resources

Sherin called on tightening up connectivity between hospitals and other resources to improve services for those in need.

“We have all these different hospital systems and they’re not connected,” he said. “We have people bouncing around from different hospitals. They’re not using our resources efficiently.”

Claudia Dunn-Martinez with UCLA Health, which has facilities on McBean Parkway, said one way the medical center has improved connectivity is by having their medical professionals operate at Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital, which has helped reduce commutes for patients who would otherwise have to travel outside of the Santa Clarita Valley.

“There’s Dignity, there’s Kaiser, but we are all on the same team,” she said.

Sherin said the biggest issue is the county’s capacity.

“You want it to all be coordinated, but you need enough capacity,” said Sherin.

What the county is doing

To help address these issues, the county is working aggressively with the state and the federal government with the Medicaid IMD (institution for mental diseases) exclusion waiver, said Sherin. The exclusion prohibits the use of federal Medicaid financing for treatment in mental health facilities with more than 16 beds. The law’s intent has been to prevent states from “warehousing” people using federal funds.

“What this translates to is that we don’t have ongoing resource streams to fund (long-term hospital beds). This will allow us to expand our capacity and provide the type of care that’s needed by the individual and promotes public safety across Los Angeles County,” Sherin said, added that county officials will push for change in Washington, D.C., next month.  

Barger said the importance of partnering with law enforcement when it comes to addressing homeless individuals with mental health issues is vital.

“Arrests went down to a little less than 1% when mental evaluation teams were put into play,” she said of the co-responder teams, who are tasked with helping individuals obtain proper mental health assessment and treatment rather than being arrested and sent to jail.

L.A. County currently has 120 co-response teams and is looking into expanding to 150. SCV Sheriff’s Capt. Robert Lewis said there are three local mental health teams, which respond to any needs by first responders.

Besides a lack of affordable housing, loss of employment is among the highest causes of homelessness and better-paying jobs are in need, said Barger.  

Hamai said that within the first 18 months of Measure H, the countywide tax to bolster homeless services, the county housed 23,000 individuals into interim or bridge housing and placed 12,000 into permanent housing.

The county has also teamed up with nonprofit United Way to provide in July $1 million for job service centers that have proven a successful track in helping people get employed, as well as using some of those funds as stipends for vocational training that could lead to further job placement.

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