Suppose we wanted to find some adults diagnosed with chronic mental illness to ask them about the services they receive. Where to find them? The streets.
The tragic fact is that staggering numbers of adults with chronic, debilitating mental illness end up living on our streets.
In the 1980s, institutions that had served individuals with mental health disabilities in Oregon were closed because of concerns about the quality of care, with the promise that appropriate funding for better treatment strategies would follow. What happened over time?
A survey in 2020 by Mental Health America on the state of services for persons with mental illnesses ranked Oregon last in the nation and 47th for youth services. What a telling indictment! In addition, an April 2021 Security.org report lists Eugene as No. 10 in the U.S. with 414.7 homeless per 100,000 residents. Naturally, this includes a significant percentage of people with serious mental illnesses.
So what services are available in our community? Who do people turn to when they encounter someone experiencing a mental health crisis? Typically, they call 911 and police are sent to address the situation. But police, in general, are trained to treat a person’s behavior in terms of a potential crime. Tragically, in some situations police respond with force. And when force becomes excessive, injuries and death may result — a pattern we’ve seen replicated across the nation.
As of December 2021, the Eugene and Springfield police departments had paid out a combined $10 million in legal settlements and claims payments over the past five years, some of which arose from the use of excessive force in crisis situations. The tragic results of excessive use of force has led to calls from across the nation for a new type of first responders. They would be trained in understanding and working with the cognitive and emotional limitations associated with mental health disabilities in areas such as communication, problem solving, de-escalation and processing information.
In Eugene, CAHOOTS — Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets — has earned national recognition for its services to mentally ill persons in crisis situations. CAHOOTS frontline responders are not law enforcement officers and carry no weapons. Their training, experience and expertise in nonviolent intervention are their tools to ensure positive, respectful and safe resolution to crisis situations.
Lamentably, funding for CAHOOTS is woefully inadequate to sustain the services needed. Team members are paid $18/hour, which is paltry given the skills required and the demanding nature of the work. These professionals need a just wage that is comparable to other service providers.
Our concern leads us to conclude that services to persons with serious mental illness need to be systematically and thoroughly overhauled. It is gratifying to see some positive and constructive movement such as the passage of Measure 110 to provide support for addressing people with addictions, which includes individuals with mental health issues. However, much more needs to be done. Specifically, a first and most urgent step for addressing the needs of persons with chronic mental illness in the Eugene/Springfield area is to substantially increase the funding levels of organizations like CAHOOTS. With stable and adequate funding, these vital organizations can build long-term team stability and set an example that can be replicated throughout the state and nation.
Our city council has approved funding to study the role of organizations such as CAHOOTS. Over the last 18 months, thousands of Eugenians signed a petition and dozens made comments at city council meetings demanding money from the Community Safety Initiative budget to fund CAHOOTS and related service organizations.
Let your city councilor know you support immediate action to fund CAHOOTS at a sustainable level. Of course, the longer-term solution is to fund comprehensive services to provide proper shelter, food and necessary support for a reasonable quality of life. Let’s stand together to secure proper funding for CAHOOTS!
Geoff Colvin of Eugene is a retired research associate and educational consultant from the University of Oregon’s College of Education. Doug Carnine of Eugene is a professor emeritus at the University of Oregon and president of the Choose Kindness Foundation.
This article originally appeared on Register-Guard: CAHOOTS needs better funding