Groups seeing rise in severe mental health cases among N.O. homeless

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by Scott Satchfield / Eyewitness News

wwltv.com

Posted on March 12, 2010 at 7:23 PM

Updated Friday, Mar 12 at 8:25 PM

NEW ORLEANS - Lately, as homeless outreach groups fanned out across the city, crews say they've noticed a disturbing trend.

They say they're coming across a large number of people with severe mental illness - some of whom have spent time in the mental healthcare system, but are now on the streets.
 
Mike Miller, who works with UNITY of Greater New Orleans, says that in some cases the situations are dangerous.
 
"These are people who are paranoid schizophrenic, bipolar, manic depression," Miller said. "We've encountered some people in the last week, couple weeks, who have absolutely raised concerns, particularly not just for themselves, but also for our outreach workers, and the concern transfers to the general public."
 
Miller says it's been a problem since Hurricane Katrina, but with a reduction of beds at some mental healthcare facilities across the state, he worries things are getting worse.
 
"What's interesting is we're seeing it from other institutions we've never really seen before, particularly some of the forensic units, and they're ending up on the streets, and we're encountering them in abandoned buildings."
 
Officials with the Metropolitan Human Services District say they're working aggressively to turn things around.
 
A focus now, they say, is to assign case workers to each patient.
 
"There will be patients who are on the streets, who fall between the cracks, who have substance use issues and so forth, that we need to just reevaluate, and maybe get them into an alternative level of care," said Dr. Craig Coenson, Medical Director at MHSD."So we have care coordinators, and again, we're in the infancy stage, of really having one individual that will track this person throughout a continuum, so as to make sure that the patient does not fall through the cracks."
 
Dr. Mark Townsend, Medical Director of Psychiatry for LSU Hospitals, says it's a good strategy.
 
"The majority of people who are homeless in the United States do have chronic and persistent mental illness of some sort. That's the challenge, is to bring people to places where they want to stay and treat them successfully on the street," Townsend said.
 
Metropolitan officials say they are also working to expand the number of transitional housing units in the area so patients don't end up on the streets after being discharged.
 
But with a limited number of beds and tightening resources, homeless outreach groups believe the mental healthcare system is stretched to its limit.
 
Each night, they say people suffering from a mental crisis wind up in hospital emergency rooms, and after some shuffling, often times, they land back on the street.
 
"There's absolutely a concern for safety. You know, when you're dealing with a mental health patient that hasn't been connected to the appropriate resources and is symptomatic, yeah, that becomes a safety issue," Miller said.
 
 
 
 

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