Ashland Homeless Coalition meets to tackle mental health issues

Noting a dramatic rise in mental health problems among the homeless here, the Ashland Homeless Coalition is seeking to establish a cadre of volunteers to help police, businesses and agencies get them into treatment.

"There is nothing for them," Ashland City Councilwoman Carol Voisin said.

Many simply need to get on the Oregon Health Plan to get mental health coverage and others need transportation to Medford, where most services are. But clients need assistance to take advantage of these, and nonprofit agencies can step in and cover liability, an essential step in using volunteers, said Roseann Schaye, clinical supervisor for Jackson County Mental Health, who addressed the group of 20 discussing the issue Thursday at Ashland's Congregational Church.

Schaye and others pointed to a recent rise in homeless mental health cases in the Rogue Valley, spurred by the poor economy, foreclosures and layoffs, compounded by a layer of "co-occuring" mental illness and addiction.

"It seems people are getting more and more ill, who are coming to us. There's so much meth abuse in the past, addiction issues — many very severe, many not serious enough to be in the (mental) hospital — so they still require police attention," said Schaye, pointing out an array of services and entry points available.

Volunteers should come to the Homeless Coalition meetings at 2 p.m. every other Thursday at Ashland's Congregational Church, Siskiyou Blvd. at Morton Street. The next meeting is March 22. Volunteers will receive some training, said Voisin.

"Volunteers don't have to be mental health professionals and they will be helping keep people in homes who are on the verge of losing their homes — and getting people out of homes if they need to get out," said Voisin.

One volunteer is working with the new La Clinica mobile health van when it's at the Methodist Church on North Main at Laurel Street, and she is being covered for liability by Community Works, said Bryce Brooks, director of youth and family services at Community Works.

A recent Homeless Coalition survey found 142 homeless in Ashland, which, added to the tally of 71 by the Ashland School District, totals 213. Of the former, 11 were categorized as severely mentally ill, 23 with chronic substance abuse and 15 left their last living arrangement because of mental or emotional disorder.

The recent census of the homeless has caused "concern," said Brooks, as it indicates "a new problem, that, because of the economy, foreclosures and layoffs ... transient people are moving west for the warmer weather and many have drug problems, depression, anxiety and are in need of mental health assistance."

Brooks called it a "growing problem that needs to be addressed and she noted it has spurred increased cooperation between social agencies, nonprofits, police and the Sheriff's Office, especially for after-hours emergency crisis teamwork.

Homeless people who are not mentally healthy keep cycling through the jail and hospital systems, said Brooks, "and we're not able to stabilize them. We need to collaborate. They have no resources and are not insured." Volunteers, some of them retired mental health professionals, are filling gaps, answering emergency calls, befriending troubled people and offering them rides to help in Medford, said Voisin.

Underlining the labor-intensive nature of the help, Schaye told how disturbed people often need to be stopped from giving away all their possessions, and need to have someone assigned as payee for Social Security Disability because the money disappears rapidly.

The understanding on the part of law enforcement on how to work with mental health issues is growing, Schaye said, "but there's a lot of new designer drugs out there and there are so many people sucking away the resources of others."

Another obstacle in working with police, she added, is that case workers need to get a release from patients before disclosing that the person has mental issues, so "often, the police don't know what they're walking into."

County Mental Health does assessment of three people at a time at 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, most on OHP, and has drop-in groups at 3 p.m. Thursdays. The mental facility at Rogue Valley Medical Center is available for the extreme cases, she said.

A good entry point for disturbed people is HelpLine, 541-779-HELP, which will quickly refer disturbed people to the right assistance, said Brooks.

The Ashland Homeless Coalition is an ad hoc, nongovernmental group of social agencies, volunteers, homeless people, affected families and other interested persons, and is not connected to the Ashland Homeless Steering Committee.

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