Frank Torres Jr. (right) receives a hug from Keith Gaines following a prayer during a Church of the Common Ground Christmas Eve service for the homeless at Woodruff Park in Atlanta, Monday, December 24, 2018. More housing options for the homeless are part of a larger proposal involving mental health and addiction support. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM) AJC FILE PHOTO
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Fulton County proposing sweeping expansion of mental health services

A year after Fulton County outsourced its mental health and addiction services, local leaders say they want to further expand resources by securing more state support.

They are working to get the state legislature on board, in the hopes that an influx of cash from government coffers could help them expand access to resources. Now, the state gives less than $20,000 to Fulton County for core mental health and addiction services, said Anna Roach, the county’s chief operating officer.

The county’s goal is to be named an official safety net provider by the state. With that designation, Fulton can get access to millions of dollars more and can coordinate care across the criminal justice system and with other service providers. County officials also want to target mental and behavioral health issues among the homeless population.

VIDEO: More on metro Atlanta’s homeless

People 2 People August 25, 2018

Currently, the county invests $10 million into those behavioral health services. Leaders want the state to contribute an additional $12 million to $15 million to help build a more comprehensive system, so fewer people fall through the cracks.

Over the past several months, the county has been presenting pieces of the proposal to members of its legislative delegation.

“We want their endorsement,” Roach said.

One tenant of the proposal is the creation of what’s called permanent supportive housing, in partnership with Atlanta, to provide shelter and at-home services for the city’s homeless population. Other pieces include better mental health screening at the jail, the creation of a diversion center for the homeless and better efforts to track people across the services they use.

By 2023, Atlanta wants to have 1,000 units of permanent supportive housing, said Cathryn Marchman, the executive director of Partners for HOME, a nonprofit that manages Atlanta’s homeless funds. Already, 100 units have been created, and 50 more should be available in the coming months. The units are meant for people who are chronically homeless. In addition to ensuring they have shelter, the units come with help — mental health services, addiction treatment, or simply help planning meals and getting IDs.

When all the units are complete, there should be room for everyone who is chronically homeless to get shelter, Marchman said. While the homeless population has been falling over the last decade — it was 3,076 in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, down from 6,131 in 2009 — there is still a need for more resources. According to HUD data, 740 people were unsheltered in 2018.

The $158 million permanent supportive housing project includes funding from both the city and the county, as well as state and federal money, private sector funds and a contribution from the Atlanta Housing Authority.

Marchman said the state committee seemed receptive to and supportive of the idea, and she was “really, really excited” about the partnerships.

“That’s huge,” she said. “That’s absolutely incredible.”

The broad proposal also calls for the creation of a drop-off center for homeless individuals, so they are taken somewhere where they can be connected to resources instead of to jail.

In the courts, there would be better and more consistent screening for mental health and addiction issues, and better efforts to help people connect to treatment services after they have been released from custody, according to the plan. The proposal also calls for more officers to be trained for crisis intervention, including how to offer mental health first aid. In addition, 911 operators would be trained to recognize and respond to metal health crises.

Natalie Hall, a Fulton County commissioner, said last year’s outsourcing has led to more people being served.

The county also continues to prioritize opioid response by distributing a drug that reverses overdoses to police officers and expanding treatment services. And it’s asking for support to expand Medicaid availability through a waiver program at Grady.

“It’s not something we can achieve on our own,” Roach told state leaders at a committee meeting, in asking for their support. “Our vision is a behavioral health ecosystem.”

County Commissioner Liz Hausmann called the additional investments a critical need, while Dick Anderson, the county manager, told legislators he hoped Fulton could get help accessing resources that leaders need to be successful. The problems, he said, are not going away.

“We’re ready. We have a strategy. You can hold us accountable,” he said.

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