Leon Evans, of San Antonio, is the designer of the model program in Bexar County, Texas, that has helped drastically reduce homelessness and steered the mentally ill into effective intervention programs, not costly jails.
His message, delivered to Louisiana law enforcement and civic leaders in Baton Rouge, stressed both the practical but also the humanitarian benefits of diversion of the mentally challenged from overburdened jails and hospital emergency rooms.
This is a problem everywhere in the country, he said, talking about law enforcement’s challenges with the mentally ill. “They see these people over and over and over again,” Evans said.
Part of the secret of San Antonio’s model is that nonviolent people who are drunk or high need the intervention not of police or nurses but of the kind of staff that understand what addicts are going through. That sensitivity to the hurdles of getting straight, usually from staff members who are themselves recovering, can make a difference in people’s lives that lasts.
All this struck a chord with Mayor-President Kip Holden: “Unless you are hard-hearted, the answer is yes, I am my brother’s keeper.”
Call us crass and insensitive, but if we don’t disagree with the sentiments of Evans and Holden, we are most excited about the Benjamins — the ways in which smart training, investment in quality facilities for the homeless and the disturbed, and treatment follow-up can save the taxpayer money.
In San Antonio’s case, it’s been an awful lot of money.
The reforms implemented by Evans and his colleagues in San Antonio took years to get in place, but over a decade, the savings are estimated in the tens of millions of dollars. The rate of offenders returning to prisons is usually high but is less than 7 percent of those diverted to the San Antonio system.
That does not include the costs you can see in emergency rooms as officers have to hang around as people who should be on medication are treated once they get in trouble. That doesn’t count the sheer costs of medical care, costs that are often shifted to middle-class insurance policyholders.
A committee of civic leaders headed by the Rev. Raymond Jetson and supported by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation brought Evans for a presentation to community leaders and law enforcement leaders. It was a subject obviously of greater importance than purely in Baton Rouge: Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman, who has wrestled with the tough issues involving confinement of the mentally ill, was in the audience, as was state Department of Health and Hospitals head Kathy Kliebert.
This is a challenge across the nation, which is a reason that Evans’ program is sought after as a model. But, as he noted, the good intentions of a lot of people can founder over issues of who is paying for what element of treatment.
“The real power in what we do is that our community came together,” Evans said.
All too often, funding disputes and institutional silos are sheet-anchors that prevent a variety of agencies and nonprofits from working together as effectively as they should. In San Antonio, Jetson said, “they have taken the time and trouble to connect the dots.”
Public safety is not best served by pouring resources — time and money — into jailing nonviolent offenders. The situation is worsened by the recurring cases, those whom officers see over and over again because no one has assembled the package that San Antonio has, involving training of officers and other first responders and then the diversion and follow-up to treatment.