County preserving funding for key residential mental health care, peer counseling programs
Under intense pressure by mental health patients and advocates, county leaders during budget negotiations Wednesday agreed to spend more than $6 million to save residential care and peer and family support services from deep budget cuts.
These programs, operated under the behavioral health division of the county Department of Health Services, serve thousands of patients a year across Sonoma County who suffer a range of mental health disorders.
More than half of that money will go toward continuing operations of 16 residential care homes providing specialized care to more than 200 people diagnosed with acute mental health conditions. The county supervisors decided to spare $3.8 million in budget trims the health department director had proposed which could have potentially closed these vital residential care sites.
The supervisors’ retreat on making harsh funding reductions to mental health services came the day after about 70 people turned out to support these essential programs at the only public forum on the county’s $1.78 billion 2019-2020 budget, expected to be approved Friday.
Supervisors are able to keep fully funding the residential care services by transferring it from the county’s health department to the Community Development Commission, which oversees the county housing authority and receives local, state and federal money to manage myriad housing-related programs.
“We cannot let this program fall through the cracks,” Supervisor Susan Gorin said of residential mental health care. Gorin and fellow supervisors James Gore and Shirlee Zane banded together to preserve the critical mental health programs facing severe funding cutbacks, citing the community benefits.
Tom Biere, executive director of Community Support Network, which operates two residential care homes, said the last few months have been stressful for his organization as it awaited the county’s decision regarding funding.
“We only have 30 days to go until our contract is up, so I am grateful that the county found a creative solution to keep these folks housed,” Biere said.
Last year, residential care received $3.9 million in county funding, which Health Services Director Barbie Robinson proposed whittling down to $100,000 a year. Robinson made proposals in April to make deep cuts across her behavioral and public health divisions, in an attempt to close the $11 million budget shortfall that has overwhelmed her department since 2014.
Also, the supervisors are temporarily rescuing peer counseling and family support programs by committing $2.5 million in funding through 2021. That money remains contingent on community counseling program and county leaders collaborating to find alternative sources of cash. Originally, Robinson called for $1.3 million in one-year funding cuts for these behavioral health initiatives.
The supervisors’ willingness to continue paying for the residential mental health care and peer counseling for some of the county’s most vulnerable residents alleviated anxiety of dozens of patients, family members, health providers and supporters who say patients depend daily on the specialized care to survive.
Robert Lloyd, 42, was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his early 20s. For nearly two years, he has been living at the male-only Hope House in Santa Rosa. It’s one of the residential care homes managed by Community Support Network that would have been hard-pressed to keep operating, if the county had enacted the planned budget cuts.
“It would be a shame if they ever closed it, because there are a lot of people dependent now and in the future that need a house like this,” Lloyd said Wednesday. “There are a lot of people that need help on the streets that come to a place like this to get to shower and food. I would be upset if I ever heard they closed it.”