By Chris McKenna
Posted Jul 9, 2019 at 6:17 PM
Updated Jul 9, 2019 at 6:17 PM
Orange County residents suffering from mental illness and eligible for state-subsidized housing currently have about 525 apartments and places in group homes with varying degrees of supervision that the state is funding in the county.
But an even greater number of people - 718 - were on a county waiting list for housing as of March 1. And mental-health advocates say New York’s longstanding under-funding for those housing types has meant not only a shortage of available slots but staff reductions and low pay for the workers who care for that vulnerable population.
A bill sponsored by Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther and unanimously approved by both legislative chambers last month seeks to correct those problems by forming a commission to study the housing needs of New Yorkers with mental illness and recommend appropriate funding increases for the next budget.
Though a study commission might seem a way to skirt the funding shortfall, advocates and Gunther supported the solution and are hopeful it will make the problems too glaring to ignore.
“I hate ‘study bills,’” Gunther, a Forestburgh Democrat and chairwoman of the Assembly Mental Health Committee, said Tuesday. “But maybe if there’s a study bill, it will be addressed sooner.”
The state Office of Mental Health now funds about 40,000 mental-health beds but needs roughly another 35,000, said Antonia Lasicki, executive director of the Association for Community Living New York State, which represents nonprofits that provide housing and rehabilitation for the mentally ill.
Locally, the state is funding 525 beds in Orange County, 283 in Ulster County and 143 in Sullivan County - a total of 951 apartments and group-home slots in the three counties, according to figures that advocates provided.
The state boosted its annual housing budget by about $10 million each of the last five years, allocating around $920 million this year for all five types of mental-health housing, Lasicki said. What lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo must do now to overcome decades of underfunding, she argued, is bump spending by as much as $170 million - an amount she said most likely would be spread out over five years.
Advocates say one pitfall of the funding shortfall is high turnover among direct-care workers, who earn low salaries for increasingly complex jobs.
The state gives housing providers roughly minimum-wage amounts to pay their workers, and the providers must “find ways to pay more or they would have no staff,” Lasicki said. Some workers assigned to group homes must single-handedly supervise anywhere from eight to 48 clients, dispensing medication, writing service plans and goals for each client, serving meals and handling Medicare and Medicaid paper work.
If signed by Cuomo, the bill sponsored by Gunther and Sen. David Carlucci of Rockland County would create a nine-member appointed commission that would deliver its funding recommendations by October 2020. Advocates hope the work could be done sooner to influence the budget that will be adopted in the spring of 2020.
Nadia Allen, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Orange County, said Tuesday that clients who are waiting for housing slots now are either homeless or living with family members or in some precarious situation, in need of housing to give their lives stability. She said she hopes the study, if it comes to fruition, will get the attention it deserves.
“If you have a heart, in my opinion, once you see it you can’t unsee it,” she said.
Read the article on the Times Herald Record’s website here: https://www.recordonline.com/news/20190709/housing-in-short-supply-for-mentally-ill