More than 10 years after Californians voted for a special income tax on millionaires to pay for expanded mental health services, we still don’t know if the program is working the way its sponsors promised it would.
Proposition 63, passed in 2004, was supposed to reduce the number of mentally ill homeless people on California’s streets. But anyone who walks through one of the state’s major cities can tell you that homeless people with mental illness are still with us, seemingly in numbers as great as ever.
As we noted in November, 2,500 people are homeless on any given night in Sacramento County, a number that has been essentially unchanged for at least seven years.
Does that mean the money from Proposition 63 has been wasted? Or is the need so great that more services are required to solve the problem?
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A recent report focusing on the measure’s spending found that while many of its programs may be working, neither the public nor state policymakers can be sure because the counties and the state have been lax in collecting and publishing data on their effectiveness.
Now former Sen. Darrell Steinberg, who was a co-author of Proposition 63, is trying to fill that information gap. Steinberg has been saying for years that the $1 billion-plus generated annually by the 1 percent charge on people earning $1 million or more has vastly improved the lives of thousands of people.
On Wednesday, Steinberg released numbers gathered from the counties that he says show that Californians – and especially people the ballot initiative was intended to help – are getting a lot of value for the money spent.
The numbers focus on programs known as “full service partnerships,” which bring every element of the mental health system together to work with homeless people and people whose illness puts them at risk of being homeless.
The numbers show that the 35,000 people served by the program in 2011-12 were far less likely to need psychiatric care or hospitalization or be arrested or jailed after one year in a partnership than they were in the year before they entered the program.
And while 21 percent of adults served by the program were either on the streets or in a shelter when they began the program, only 9 percent were homeless when they were discharged.
More extensive and independent follow-up is needed to show whether the help these people get is a short-lived salve or is turning their lives around – a crucial question.
And while the partnerships Steinberg is touting this week account for about 40 percent of Proposition 63 spending, the rest goes to a collection of efforts whose effectiveness is even less well known. More data on those programs would help as well.
Homelessness, especially among the mentally ill, is one of the great tragedies of our time. California’s voters made solving the problem a top priority. Now it’s up to policymakers to ensure that the commitment the voters made is fulfilled through programs that are smart, effective and accountable.
The latest numbers are encouraging, but as even Steinberg concedes, they are not complete.