Georgia Struggles with Nationwide Problem of Housing for Chronically Mentally Ill

Finding housing for the chronically mentally ill after discharge from psychiatric inpatient services has come to be one of the most vexing problems that all states continue to struggle with. In brief, this has risen to be one of the paramount issues facing every state’s public mental health service delivery system due primarily to two factors: 1) decades of “de-institutionalization,” phasing out the practice and philosophy of housing the chronically mentally for decades or lifetimes, coupled with cutting back in every state of the numbers of state hospital psychiatric beds, and, 2) the rise of legal decisions and enforcement measures since the 1970’s emphasizing transferring patients to “less restrictive” levels of care, which is most clearly spelled out and embodied by the Olmstead Supreme Court decision.

An earlier post described the revelation that in Nevada in this past decade or less, that state had been discharging patients on planes to San Francisco, California! Patients were apparently given a suitcase of a supply of clothes and supposedly some amount of money to help them set down roots in the neighboring state. By report, this practice had been utilized for about two years before it was revealed and a brouhaha resulted. New York state’s practice of turning out of use old hotels turned into “welfare hotels,” for housing not only persons or families on welfare but also the chronically mentally ill and paroled ex-convicts has long been known.

This past week or so, an article entitled: “Deaths, delays paint grim picture of Georgia mental health reform: State still discharging patients to extended-stay motels, homeless shelters, by veteran reporter Alan Judd was published May 11, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper. that shows the huge problems states face in completing the long heralded de-institutionalization process, that of moving the “CMI” [chronically mentally ill] populations from hospitals to safe housing with adequate outpatient treatment, supervisory and rehabilitation services.

Georgia has been contending with this issue for at least 7 years since the federal government began to monitor and require positive changes in finding housing for the discharged patients, instead of releasing them as the article put it: “with just a bus token and directions to a homeless shelter.” Now Georgia apparently faces the imposition of a looming deadline of June 30, 2018, to comply with a legal settlement and pledge Georgia entered into with the federal U. S. Department of Justice back in 2010. 

The article even-handedly notes the many steps of progress that have been undertaken and implemented by the state and gives credit for notable and partial improvements.

But this article illustrates the Herculean tasks that states face in transitioning themselves from the traditional custodial role utilizing large massive hospitals and viewing treatment as often lifelong or at least so long that it may as well be lifelong, to a system aiming at re-integrating the chronically mentally ill safe enough to be returned to the communities and constructing complete new and entirely different systems of housing and care for literally thousands of persons within spans of a relatively few years. There are no simple answers in any quarter and the task which may have been viewed as achievable within approximate task-timer periods clearly is proving to be greater, harder, more coslty and complicated than likely almost anyone could have imagined.At the least, enforcement by the “feds,” may have to consist of extending time periods of effort to the states and partnerships that help with costs and perhaps even approaches not yet widely appreciated by any of us.

Discharging Patients to Bleak Destinations

May 11, 2017

In today’s AJC Online publication of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, entitled: “Deaths, delays paint grim picture of Georgia mental health reformState still discharging patients to extended-stay motels, homeless shelter” authored by Allan Judd of the AJC, a despicable, but tried and true shameful expedient method of discharging and placing discharged psychiatric patients has come to light once again. Before I identify it, I would like to cite a few of its historical predecessors that were also once ‘standard practice,’ that tried to make one segment of our long “broken mental health system” work.

Several years ago, a private psychiatric hospital in Nevada gained notoriety in the news by the discovery that for two years or so, it had been discharging chronically mentally ill patients to the ‘foreign’ territory of California. Patients would be given a starter set of clothes and belongings in a suitcase, an amount of cash money whose exact amount I can not at this moment recall, and plunked down after a short plane flight from Henderson NV I believe to the airport and streets of San Francisco as a means of “placement.” This is of course set off much moralizing, scandal, and opprobrium, corrective and punitive action was taken and the practice stopped.

Now a story emerges from Georgia that it is doing something close to that by discharging “mental patients” from its state hospitals to makeshift former motels and shelters with just a bus fare token and little else,…like follow up, a ready and waiting clinical post-discharge treatment team and program? Perhaps, perhaps not.

This also reminds me of the practice of New York approximately two decades ago, in which such patients were discharged to welfare hotels; these were abandoned, closed, bankrupted, foreclosed, gone out of business hotels from another era who could not compete anymore in the glitzy market of tony New York hotels. These places would be filled with ‘dischargees’ from prisons and psychiatric hospitals with no other suitable resources, families or homes they could turn to. New York as I recall was indeed treating these unfortunate folks with outreach mental health, public health and social work teams struggling to help keep them stable in such grim and lonely settings, but these ‘placements’ quickly became cesspools of crime and corruption as the predatory types, the criminal wolves of society learned to prey upon these defenseless persons at the first of every month when their benefits checks would arrive. [In the days before automatic electronic deposit had taken hold].

New York City Police had to deal with this and it was a nightmare and a number of deaths and tragedies brought this practice to the corrective glare of the light of investigative focus.

Those detestable practices likely had to be employed since states, as they closed aging, falling down, decrepit state hospitals without funding adequate decent housing on a massive social scale for this displaced population.

The ironic similarity to refugee camps in the Middle East sprang easily again to my mind. Any person without stable resources, a supportive surrounding community of “friends and neighbors,” an adequate income and food supply, medical care and all the ordinary trappings of a life in a familiar community that most of us take for granted, and has only as many possessions as they can carry on their heads, or in a duffel bag or black plastic garbage bag or a ‘borrowed’ grocery store cart, qualifies as a “refugee,” in my mind. In fact, to stretch this wretched analogy further, we have our own internal large population of “Syrian refugees,” in our country though we largely do not realize it on a collective national consciousness. Except the “relief” workers do, who struggle valiantly to help care for these unfortunates against truly daunting odds.

As they say in real estate, “location, location, location,” I would add the phrase “funding, funding, funding,” to this national disgrace. This sector of our nation’s life and citizens needs new “infrastructure rebuilding” as much or more so than our fabled Interstate Highway System conceived and begun during President Eisenhower’s era.

 Rather than send the reader off to the article via a hyperlink I have decided to excerpt portions of the article for the reader to read and ponder first hand:

Deaths, delays paint grim picture of Georgia mental health reform

State still discharging patients to extended-stay motels, homeless shelters

Posted: 7:31 a.m. Thursday, May 11, 2017


Mentally ill patients often left Georgia’s state psychiatric hospitals with just a bus token and directions to a homeless shelter.

For people with disabilities, these same institutions became places of permanent confinement.

This is the system that Georgia, under pressure from the federal government, pledged seven years ago to radically overhaul. But with a court-enforced deadline fast approaching, the state increasingly seems unlikely to fulfill its promises.

Georgia has less than 14 months – until June 30, 2018 – to comply with a settlement it reached with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2010. The agreement followed an investigation that concluded the state had systematically violated the rights of people with mental illness and developmental disabilities.

But the state continues to discharge patients with mental illness to places where they are unlikely to get psychiatric treatment: extended-stay motels, for instance, and even the massive Peachtree-Pine homeless shelter in midtown Atlanta. All patients with disabilities are supposed to be moved into group homes or other community-based facilities, but at the current rate of progress, the state might not meet that requirement for another 10 years.

As officials try to comply with the agreement, they also are investigating an alarming number of deaths in community-based treatment: about 350 since 2014. Those apparently include five dozen suicides.

A court-appointed monitor credits the state with making many promised improvements, especially regarding crisis intervention and other services for people with mental illness.

Still, a grim picture emerges from the monitor’s most recent report, as well as from interviews and documents reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

It is “absolutely essential” that the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disability “act with urgency to meet its obligations,” the monitor, Elizabeth Jones, wrote in late March in a report to U.S. District Judge Charles Pannell. “Although there has been noteworthy progress in certain discrete areas of implementation, the reform efforts require additional diligent and effective actions if compliance is to be achieved within the anticipated timeframe.”

Department officials declined to be interviewed.

In a statement, the agency did not say whether it expects to meet the deadlines next year. But the department said it is moving at “a reasonable pace” to move. “Transitions are carefully and individually planned to meet the unique needs and preferences of each individual and to provide the best opportunities for success in the community.”

The agency said it welcomed the monitor’s “reflections and recommendations.”

The Justice Department began investigating Georgia’s psychiatric hospitals in 2007 after a Journal-Constitution series, “A Hidden Shame,” exposed a pattern of poor medical care, abuse, neglect and bad management that had caused dozens of unnecessary deaths.

Transforming a historically troubled mental health system has been a slower process than perhaps anyone envisioned when state and federal authorities put together a plan. Already, a judge extended the deadline for compliance once, from 2015 to 2018.

The state has spent millions of dollars and reorganized the bureaucracy that oversees the hospitals and community treatment. It also closed two state hospitals, in Rome and Thomasville. All that’s left of Central State Hospital, the notorious facility in Milledgeville that once warehoused as many as 12,000 people, is a unit for people committed through the criminal justice system.

The state complied with hundreds of provisions from the settlement agreement with ease. But several issues have proved insoluble.

For instance, despite promising to provide “supported” housing to 9,000 people with mental illness, the state has managed to find such homes for fewer than 2,500 former hospital patients, according to the monitor’s report.

Vouchers that pay for the housing have been “a game changer for the people who have gotten the housing vouchers,” said Talley Wells, who runs Atlanta Legal Aid’s disability integration project. “But the reality is we still have a long way to go to complete the settlement. The state made a commitment to 9,000 people to provide this game-changing housing.”

In past years, the state hospitals, especially Georgia Regional Hospital/Atlanta, sent scores of newly discharged patients to locations where continued treatment seemed unlikely: homeless shelters, street corners, even an abandoned van on a street in Atlanta’s West End.

But from 2016 to 2017, according to the monitor’s report, the hospitals cut discharges to homeless shelters by half. At the same time, however, the number of patients placed in extended-stay motels quadrupled.

The patients typically leave state hospitals with appointments for additional mental-health treatment; in Atlanta, it’s usually at a clinic operated by Grady Memorial Hospital. But most patients discharged to shelters and motels never show up for their appointments, the monitor found. Some return to state hospitals again and again.

The lack of housing sometimes contributes to deaths and injuries, state records show.

In November 2014, records show, a staff member at a community-based mental health center promised a client she would complete paperwork to get him a housing voucher. Almost a month passed before the staff member followed through. By then, the client was homeless – and had killed himself.

Finding appropriate places for developmentally disabled patients has been just as difficult.

Since 2010, the state has moved more than 500 disabled patients out of state hospitals. But in the year ending June 30, 2016, officials managed to transfer just 26 patients and as many as 10 times that many remain in state hospitals. (The monitor’s report listed the number as 284, while the state said it is 204.)

The state has continually struggled to find high-quality community settings, especially for patients who have complex medical needs.

As the Journal-Constitution reported last month, many patients have ended up in privately run group homes where inadequate staffing, poor training, and incessant cost-control measures have put them at risk. Between 2014 and 2016, 53 people died in Georgia under the care of just two for-profit group home operators. At least 46 of the deaths were unexpected and, according to state reports, may have been preventable.

A state panel called the Community Mortality Review Committee examines each death. Minutes from the committee’s meetings show that at least two dozen disabled people choked to death on food from 2014 to 2016. Others died from bowel obstructions, a condition that is supposed to be closely monitored.

State officials redacted most details of individual deaths. But the committee’s minutes show that in one case in 2015, for example, the staff of a group home had not been trained on what foods would be too difficult for a particular patient to swallow. The state left the resident alone during breakfast with food she couldn’t swallow, and she choked to death.

The deaths show the need for better screening and more oversight as transfers from the state hospitals continue, advocates for people with developmental disabilities said.

“This is all about making sure people have the supports they need to lead meaningful lives in their communities,” said Alison Barkoff, one of the lawyers who represented advocates during the state and federal negotiations over the settlement agreement. “It’s not just moving people for the sake of moving people.”

Barkoff said the state should either fix problems immediately, if it can, or acknowledge it will need to extend the settlement agreement past the June 2018 deadline.

But what happens if the deadline passes without the state’s full compliance is not at all clear.

Under President Barack Obama’s administration, the Justice Department aggressively pushed the state to act. At one point, federal lawyers asked a judge to hold the state in contempt of court for failing to live up to its promises. That request led to the extension of the settlement agreement.

Advocates worry that President Donald Trump’s Justice Department may show little interest in enforcing Obama-era settlements such as the one with Georgia. While career attorneys in the department’s civil rights division remain on the job, the division’s top positions, which are political appointments, are unfilled.

With the state so far from complying with the settlement agreement, the matter may come to a head next year before a federal judge.

“I can’t imagine they will have met their obligations,” said Ruby Moore, executive director of the Georgia Advocacy Office, a federally mandated agency that promotes the rights of disabled and mentally ill people. “There is just too much to be done. They’re working hard, but I don’t think they have enough time.”


 

Community Support Like Gheel Belgium in Frederick Maryland

Since the 1400’s, the town of Gheel (also spelled Geel) Belguim has done an incredible “community project,” that as a psychiatrist I have read about periodically, and marveled at for decades. In short through an unbelievably improbable religious fluke of an event of historical Christianity, started a custom of taking in the mentally ill by families. In Gheel, families would care for the mentally disabled for as long as they could. If the parents of the caretaking family died, and the disabled ‘adopted’ member of the family was still alive, the grown children would take over their care. The system was unique in the world and still is. In fact, in some ways because of its historical longevity, it has in some ways become stronger. All this occurred centuries before any semblance of modern mental health care and it worked. Of course some of the mentally ill were so disturbed they could not be housed in families’ home but most could. The above link takes on to one of the best all around explanations of this social experiment, namely a Wikipedia article. In modern times, hundreds of social researchers and mental health professionals have made pilgrimages to Gheel to observe and study this centuries-old social ‘experiment.’

In an article entitled, “Unique programs offer people with mental illness a place in their communities, published recently in the New Haven Register, a somewhat similar social good work was profiled in the Frederick VA area, with photographs from the Washington Post. I have excerpted the following pictures and captions from that article, taken by the Post photographer and given due credit.

David Weiss, who is interested in Buddhism, seeks peace and calmness at the Tibetan Meditation Center in Frederick, Md. A favorite mantra is “Pull a weed, plant a flower.”

David Weiss, who is interested in Buddhism, seeks peace and calmness at the Tibetan Meditation Center in Frederick, Md. A favorite mantra is “Pull a weed, plant a flower.” Washington Post photo/Katherine Frey By Colby Itkowitz, The Washington Post
David Weiss, above, who is successfully dealing with several serious mental health conditions, plays a song he wrote about his sister Faith while his cat, Bab-Babes, rests close by in Weiss’s one-bedroom apartment in Frederick, Maryland. Way Station provided Weiss with the apartment as well as a case manager.David Weiss, above, who is successfully dealing with several serious mental health conditions, plays a song he wrote about his sister Faith while his cat, Bab-Babes, rests close by in Weiss’s one-bedroom apartment in Frederick, Maryland. Way Station provided Weiss with the apartment as well as a case manager. Washington Post photo/Katherine Frey
The profiled recipient of this comprehensive program, though lives on his own, attends community college classes, receives his care through clinical services of the renowned Shepherd Enoch Pratt Hospital system and lots of what we would call “ACT team wrap around” services in his apartment with visiting clinicians and by appointments in a clinic in the traditional manner. But he is overseen and in touch frequently and regularly by caring clinicians. And he still has active schizophrenic symptoms of hallucinations. He has had, it sounds like very good, cognitive therapy to help him manage his hallucinations and live with them with little or no disruption to his everyday social functioning.
Most of all he has his dignity, continues his education part time at age 64, has his dignity and his own “digs,” or place to live on his own.
His clinic program and home base for his outpatient care is a unique organization/clinic called Way Station which works very much in nontraditional ways, with its emphasis on integrating and maintaining clients in the community. It is an American derivation of sorts of the Gheel approach and seems to work well for at least some patients. The article cited above gives much more detail and background and is worth reading.
But programs like this are still too few are far between. What is usually happening now in this country is that such programs are not yet the norm, not funded and largely nonexistent. Patients who do have their own families to live with upon discharge are placed in “placements,” which range from nursing homes to entrepreneurial small to large group homes run by operators all over the country. And there are usually few to none of the social outlets, programs, educational or otherwise to further prepare and integrate clients into the ordinary fabric of our society.
We still have these new remnants of the “welfare hotels,” that were so prevalent most famously of all in New York City where out of business hotels or projects buildings, were renovated more or less well, and persons on disability income or the discharged mentally ill were housed in small hotel rooms as apartments. These places were rife with crime. They still exist typically in very large cities and are often little better managed or integrated into active treatment or rehabilitation programs and have turned into wellsprings of crime and drugs and all that goes with those scourges.
But now the funding nationally with the perhaps certain repeal of Obamacare may seriously in the future be threatened. One would hope not, and that instead these sorts of programs are replicated nationwide with links to education, employers and the levels of outreach outpatient care that is needed. But again it all boils down to money in this country. It costs money and a fair amount of funds to sustain these people-labor intensive community-based programs. We have made substantial progress in moving patients out of the state hospitals. But our high recidivism rates, readmission rates, at all state hospitals in this country demonstrate clearly that the above minimal “placement,” endpoints we now rely on, are neither working all that well nor sufficient. Let us hope that gradually our national commitment to those needed these levels of services becomes the norm in the future.