Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Remember Million-Dollar Murray?

Remember Million-Dollar Murray? So does Washoe County, Nevada. After cycling in and out of the county jail for 10 years, Murray, a homeless man with a mental illness, cost the county an estimated $1 million. He’s also the inspiration for a study completed by the University of Nevada that outlines the cost of homelessness in Washoe County.

According to the Reno Gazette Journal in its report on the study:

The Washoe County Jail is one of the largest providers of mental health services to the homeless, who are further burdening an already-crowded facility. But the jail and court system are the only places for many homeless to receive mental health treatment.

It costs just under $84 a day to house an inmate at the Washoe County Jail. Homeless inmates comprise about 7 percent of the population. In 2004, there were 443 homeless inmates compared with 746 in 2005. Comparatively, 96 of the inmates in 2004 were housed in mental health units while 169 of the homeless inmates in 2005 were housed in the mental health unit. In 2006, it was estimated that homeless inmates cost the county more than $890,000.

Researchers concluded that local officials could save money if they addressed the reasons why people become homeless rather than primarily responding to them during crisis, which leads to costly trips to jail or the emergency room.

"Homelessness is not a problem, it's a symptom," Bartholet said. "If someone is a chronic inebriate and you only provide them with a meal and a place to sleep, you may save their life by keeping them from freezing to death, but you're not doing anything to address the chronic condition they're in.

Yet that’s what the entire state continues to do. Without access to programs like assisted outpatient treatment (AOT), housing will remain nothing more than a band-aid for many of Nevada’s severely mentally ill citizens. The cycle from street to jail will continue. Remember million-dollar Murray?

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