Arizona parents urge state to house kids with serious mental illnesses
Published 6:00 a.m. MT March 26, 2019 |
Alex Goldstein’s unusual behavior started worrying his parents before he got to kindergarten.
He struggled to follow directions and didn’t make friends. He gazed into the distance and laughed for no evident reason. He worried insects would bite him at the dinner table.
Doctors at first told Charles and Laurie Goldstein of Scottsdale that their son had attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. But they wondered if it was something more.
By the time Alex was about 10, his parents realized they needed serious help. Charles found him pouring gasoline along the perimeter of their home.
“He said he was doing it to kill the ants,” said Charles, a retired emergency-medical director at HonorHealth John C. Lincoln Medical Center. “Everybody in the house would have been killed.”
The Goldsteins spent the next 15 years desperately trying to find a solution as Alex spiraled into anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, violence and drug use. He refused to take his psychiatric medicine, they said.
At times, he would live on the street, the Goldsteins said, as he cycled in and out of the family home, mental-health and drug-recovery programs, and apartments they set up for him.
“We spent years essentially not knowing from one day to the next where our boy was,” Charles said. “His behavior was so bizarre, even after a very short period of days to weeks, he would be evicted or leave.”
Things are different now.
Alex, 31, wears polo shirts and khakis, works at a stadium concession stand and owns a Labradoodle named Midnight. His large bedroom, looking onto a sunlit patio, is stocked with electric and acoustic guitars. He strummed “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas on a recent visit.
The transformation only happened, Alex and his parents said, because he was held involuntarily at the state mental hospital until medication and therapy stabilized him.
He now lives in a Tempe home run by Marc Community Resources that serves people with serious mental illness. He hasn’t been hospitalized in four years.
“Going to (Arizona State Hospital) helped me a lot,” Alex said. “The work program and … their approach to therapy is really good if you have mental illness or you have a drug addiction. (I started thinking) if I’m this far where I’m in an in-patient facility, maybe I need to live normal and get clean.”
A lack of housing for the homeless
The Goldsteins are part of a group of families, calling themselves the Association for the Chronically Mentally Ill, that is urging the Arizona Legislature to put more funding into housing for people with serious mental illness.
They have told their stories across the state Capitol, arguing people like their loved ones need better access to facilities that hold residents involuntarily until they are stabilized, as well as less restrictive homes like the one Alex lives in today.
“For this group of people, there is no place for them to go, and that is why you end up stepping over them in the street,” Charles said. “Getting into the state hospital is almost the equivalent of getting into Harvard. Maybe even harder.”
The parents’ campaign is part of a broader effort at the Legislature to address a growing homeless population, with or without mental illness. Maricopa County saw a nearly 150 percent spike in people living on the street in the past five years.
Other drivers of homelessness include a widening gap between metro Phoenix workers’ salaries and the cost of housing, as well as skyrocketing evictions.
The last time housing in Maricopa County was less affordable than the national average was during the real-estate boom of 2005 and 2006 that preceded the Great Recession.
Problem hits close to home
A handful of bipartisan bills would direct millions of dollars toward affordable housing for families, youth and people with serious mental illness.
The proposals are the first significant steps in years the Legislature has taken to tackle the problem, lawmakers said.
“We’ve had more conversations in the short beginning of session than I’ve seen since I’ve been elected” in 2010, said Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek.
Republicans and Democrats are “rolling up our sleeves and looking at every angle, every option, every program, every dollar available to see what we can do to address the problem of homelessness,” Carter said.
The problem hits close to home for some lawmakers.
- A neighbor of Sen. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, was stabbed to death in a home invasion last year. The suspect was a mentally ill man experiencing long-term homelessness. The incident spurred an outcry from the community.
- Alston’s brother had mental illness and died, she has said.
- Legislators likely have witnessed more people sleeping outside, including near the state Capitol. Maricopa County counted more than 2,600 people without shelter in a one-night survey last year, although the total number is almost certainly higher.
- Some lawmakers said they have toured homeless shelters and realized the need.
More money for special housing
Supporters hope three housing-assistance bills will succeed this year.
The biggest funding proposal, Senate Bill 1497, would pump millions into rent subsidies, homeless shelters and other assistance for families and individuals.
The money would flow into both the Arizona Housing Trust Fund and the Arizona Severely Mentally Ill Housing Trust Fund.
The Arizona Housing Trust Fund dropped from $40 million to $2.5 million per year after the Legislature swept funding during the Great Recession.
The legislation stalled before going to a vote. However, Carter said she hopes lawmakers will work the request into budget discussions this spring.
SB 1098 would set aside $5 million from the state general fund for a pilot program to house people experiencing serious mental illness.
Some of the neighborhood-style homes could be “secure,” a provision pushed by families with the Association for the Chronically Mentally Ill. There is no housing like it in Arizona, they said.
Secure housing is needed for a small number of adults experiencing mental illness who run away, miss treatment and risk committing a crime and going to prison, according to the families.
“Once they have a sliver of insight, then recovery is possible,” Laurie Goldstein said.
The placements would require a court order and aim to be temporary, advocates said. The Arizona Department of Health Services would determine licensing and regulations for the facilities, while the state would research whether the housing ultimately helped residents.
“What is lacking is a place for people with disabilities who are unwilling or unable to function on their own,” Charles said. “These homes are actually homes. They provide stability. … There is 24-hour supervision. They urge them to take their medication, teach them daily living skills, how to bathe, grocery shop, cook, so that if they ever can move on from that, they would be great members of society.”
But some critics worry about the proposed restrictions.
“Many of us that have a serious mental illness are very concerned about the word ‘containment,'” Kathy Bashor, a retired director of a state behavioral-health program, said.
Bashor said she experienced abuse when she was institutionalized years ago and doesn’t want others to go through that.
“The pendulum has shifted across the country, and there’s this big demand to start locking people up,” she said.
However, Bashor agreed some people need restrictions to get better and said she supports increasing the size of the state mental-health hospital, which can hold individuals for brief periods against their will.
However, a lawsuit settled in 2014 capped the number of civil-commitment beds for Maricopa County residents to 55, one of the lowest numbers per capita in the United States, mental-health attorney Josh Mozell said.
The limit was supposed to motivate the state to create more supportive community housing, similar to the current legislative proposals, but the resources haven’t materialized, he said.
Lawmakers said they will work with community members to refine the legislation to address concerns.
The bill passed the Senate 27-3 and is now in the House.
Taxing out-of-state property owners
SB 1471 seeks to raise as much as $12 million to house youth, families and individuals with mental illness.
The money, like the other bills, would go to the Arizona Housing Trust Fund and the Arizona Severely Mentally Ill Housing Trust Fund.
Funding would be generated by cracking down on property investors living outside Arizona who fail to pay taxes.
“This state is losing millions of dollars with out-of-state real estate sales (because) the Department of Revenue does not have a way to identify those individuals,” said the sponsor, Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake. “This is a way we can find funding that we haven’t previously been able to use.”
Title companies aren’t happy about the legislation. It would require them to send paperwork to the state every time a property is sold.
“We applaud Sen. Allen’s efforts in this matter and do not in any way oppose her goals of collecting taxes due to the state or funding meaningful social programs,” said Larry Phelps of the Land Title Association of Arizona. But “we think this is far more complex than is possible to resolve in this legislative session. The bill in its current form feels like we are building the plane while we are flying it.”
Allen pledged to continue working with title companies to make it easy for them to comply.
Jeff Taylor, who used to be homeless and now represents the homeless shelter UMOM New Day Centers, said title companies need to step up.
“I would challenge the title industry to figure it out,” Taylor said. “When (shelters are) dealing with the people that are in absolute chaos and being threatened, and (title companies) can’t figure out a document getting from a (property sale) closing to the Department of Revenue, that upsets me.”
Former homeless teen Amanda Williams urged lawmakers to support the bill. She now works with homeless youth at Native American Connections.
“I was a very lost adult. I don’t know where I would be today but for the amazing guidance and support I received” through the program, Williams said. “I didn’t think I was important, but they showed me I was important.”
Besides funding homeless shelters and rental assistance, the bill also would include funding for court-ordered “secure” housing for some people with mental illness. The state would be required to research the effectiveness of the program.
The bill passed the Senate 27-3 and is now in the House.
‘Finally a subject of interest and concern’
Alston and Carter, the bipartisan team leading the drive to pass legislation on homelessness, said they are relieved to see fellow lawmakers paying attention.
“I’m really happy it’s finally a subject of interest and concern in Arizona,” Alston said.
This is only a start, Carter said. More work is needed in the future.
“We can all agree we want to reduce and ultimately end homelessness,” she said.
The Goldsteins hope the state will approve funding to help more people with mental illness live as successfully as Alex.
On a recent Sunday, his parents picked him up to attend a nephew’s birthday party.
“For the first time in our life, we actually can go to sleep at night without wondering, ‘Where is our son? Is he safe? Is he on the street? Has he been hit by a car?'” Charles said.
Would Alex like others in his situation to have a home like his?
“Definitely,” he said. “I think that’s great when someone can do that.”