Paranoia and schizophrenia tormented Michael Escobar when he lived in San Francisco more than a decade ago. Convinced people were trying to hurt him, the soft-spoken man sometimes escaped those demons by jumping out of moving Muni buses. He once flung himself from a second-floor apartment, breaking his back and ankles.
Escobar, now 56, said he spent many years going in and out of locked psychiatric facilities. Sitting in his modest Petaluma apartment last week with his Chihuahua, Happy, on his lap, he recalled those days with unease.
“It was scary, I was frightened,” he said as Happy licked Escobar’s wrist near his watch. “People with schizophrenia deal with a lot of fear.”
But that all changed when mental health counselors and rehabilitation specialists from Buckelew Programs entered his life and helped him find subsidized housing, get stabilized on the right medications, and learn to cook, shop, clean and maintain good personal hygiene.
“I like it here. I feel safe,” he said. “I used to harm myself in the city a lot.”
The Buckelew program that gave Escobar a chance at the rest of his life would be gutted under dramatic budget cuts being proposed by the Sonoma County Department Health Services, which faces a $19 million deficit in the 2018-2019 fiscal year.
Buckelew’s county contract to provide independent living and supportive housing services to formerly homeless people living with mental illness would be reduced by 84 percent, slashing the program by more than 80 percent— from $1.45 million to about $250,000. County health services officials also seek to reduce or eliminate funding for three other Buckelew contracts by a total of $392,258, a move that would cripple Buckelew’s supportive housing and mental health services for youth, employment services and education referral services for families.
Buckelew’s CEO Tamara Player said the cuts would be “devastating,” forcing the nonprofit to, among other things, lay off 23 employees, eliminate “master leases” for 36 people with severe mental illness and cut in half mental health education and referral services that currently serve more than 1,000 families annually.
“We’d have to give up all of our master leases, which would mean 36 people becoming homeless,” Player said. “We wouldn’t have any funds to provide services.”
Player said she is hoping county health services officials can find alternative sources of funding that could save Buckelew’s services currently targeted. Those cuts are outlined in a spreadsheet listing all the service reductions being proposed by the county’s health services director, Barbie Robinson.
The list was released to The Press Democrat May 18 in response to a state public records request. According to the list, county officials are proposing cutting community partner contracts resulting in a $7,888,137 savings to the county.
Those cuts would lead to an anticipated loss of $2.9 million in federal matching Medi-Cal funds, the states version of the Medicaid program. That is, nonprofits who provide mental health and substance abuse services would be forced to absorb another almost $3 million.
The spreadsheet listing the proposed cuts also lists another possible $7.3 million in cuts to two nonprofits, Progress Foundation and Drug Abuse Alternatives Center. Those proposed cuts are listed as “to be determined” in the spreadsheet.
Kelley Naiman, accounting manager for the health services department, said in an email that “it had not been determined if or how much” the alternatives center or Progress Foundation contracts may be reduced.