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Approval of a Much Needed Resource

Updated: Aug 26, 2023

I was much relieved when I heard that the Crisis Care Levy has passed despite its odd placement as a single item on a ballot in a special election at a time when we are not usually voting. Sometimes these types of elections are ignored but the need for these resources is great, and voters seem to be aware of the need.

I feel that much of our homelessness is due to the lack of mental health care and my own experience leads me to believe that closing mental hospitals without increasing the community mental health resources contributed over the years to this overwhelming crisis of persons sleeping “rough” as they describe it in the UK.

I worked in an “outpost” office for the Baltimore County Department of Social Services in Catonsville; there were 4 of us installed in what had been the local jail. The windows were at the ceiling and the walls were very thick. Two of us served the community as social workers and the other two handled medical assistance applications and food stamp applications respectively. There was some history with this building; it housed the Draft Board during the Vietnam years, and this was where the Berrigan brothers had poured blood on the files.

Things were much calmer in the building when our office opened… that is until there was an unexpected release of patients from Spring Grove, the mental institution that had originally opened in 1797. It was one of those forbidding buildings that looked like a chamber of horrors and village rumor had it that there had been a sign that read: “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter!” I was never able to verify that, but the ominous look of the building led one to think there might be some truth in the rumor.

Although I was not in favor of institutionalizing “mental” patients, it soon became clear there had been little thought given to the sudden release of the patients. The plan was that patients would be moved to community mental health centers and receive outpatient care. The problem was that they were released with their meager belongings in a trash bag with no housing options. We were soon overwhelmed with homeless people that had no chance of getting help from community resources as the clinics had not been given additional funds or staff to handle the influx.

I was well aware that some people had been institutionalized because no one knew what to do with them. One village resident came to my attention when he wrote a letter to the President (then Nixon) and it was passed down to the local agency to handle. When I met him, I learned that he had been an orphan and was deemed “slow” and therefore was put in an institution in Pennsylvania. As it turned out, he had a significant hearing loss but was able to learn. I don’t remember what he had asked the president but apparently, he was satisfied with resolution as he soon adopted us and would visit often. While this was a potentially tragic case, he was able to learn to lip read, was socially appropriate and he seemed to have survived the unfortunate institutionalization well.

But that was not true of many of the people we would meet in the first few weeks after the “release.” I vividly remember one person who told me he was living under a big bush in the park and needed everything. Catonsville was pretty much a village with one main street of small businesses and no large apartment buildings. There were some boarding houses but no vacancies. This patient had his medical record with him (!) and proudly gave it to me to read. His doctor has recommended that he never be released into the community as he had killed several persons for no apparent reason and no demonstration of regret. In our interview, he was socially appropriate and even had a sense of humor. I gave him an application for emergency assistance and asked if he wanted help completing it and he replied No, his secretary would handle it. I was saved from trying to find a living place for him and his fellow patients as they disappeared within two days; I have often wondered if that was the beginning of mental health services as delivered by the police department. We have seen this method doesn’t work any better than institutionalization does.

This crisis care levy should help but will be slow in coming. 2025 is the target date for the first care center and hopefully something will be done to ensure adequate staff. There is a shortage of therapists now. Incentives like tuition assistance might help to reduce this problem and perhaps better pay. “Helping” jobs are not well paid and burnout is often a problem, but the centers are a start. And many thanks to King County Councilman Girmay Zahilay for all his hard work on this project.

~Diane Snell


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