Roy Exum: They Aren't Criminals

Tuesday, January 30, 2018 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum
We’ve tried it the old way, telling our most desperate to get their lives straightened out, to get into a church, and then we’ll figure out where they can stay. There ain’t a chance that will ever work with those who suffer from mental illness, who are homeless, or struggle with addictions. Failure, along with a hell you wouldn’t wish anyone, is guaranteed I know. I have seen it and it is still on vivid display at our county jail.
But you know what does work? Housing first -- once we get our strugglers secure, and clean and warm and with food, it is far easier to get them back on the prescribed medicines, coordinated with social workers, and gentle supervision.
That’s when these people can get their lives “straightened out” in a community that cares.
It is going to happen in Chattanooga. Last week a team from the Corporation for Supportive Housing was in here at the behest of Sheriff Jim Hammond and we are now one of 30 pilot programs across the country that is earnest in an effort remember our forgotten.
Forgotten? Yes, how else do you describe our police officers and sheriff’s deputies stacking tons of people nobody wants any part of; sufferers whose only port of call is the county jail because there is no other option. How’s that? Is that who we’ve become? Don’t you see, our society offers no other choice - yet? Mental illness is a sickness. In more cases than not, it lapses over into the homeless. Addiction is also treatable but not one of these conditions is illegal. “So why have we stigmatized these people as criminals?” asks Gino Bennett who handles a huge myriad of support services for the sheriff’s department.
“Their neighbors see someone whose ability to reason is impaired in a police car, or they see our officers handcuffing someone who is acting abnormally. Someone will dial 9-1-1 if they see some guy urinating in public. Unfortunately, ‘the buck stops here’ but they are not criminals … they are members of somebody’s family who are pleading for help.”
Over the past year Sheriff Hammond has headed a team to address “doing a better job” with arrestees who do not belong in his jail. Bennet has teamed with dynamic Janna Jahn, an impressive array of team members and elected officials and the results of their study will result in the biggest diversion project ever tried in Hamilton County.
Bennett said, “We have had some businesses step up to provide funds and we have signed a contract with CSH to help us get the pilot project off the ground. The biggest thing we’ve learned is that the whole thing is centered on housing. If we can get a homeless person, for example, where he knows he’ll be safe, where he knows no one will steal his stuff and take this horrible anxiety away, everybody wins.
“The county jail costs up to $87,000 a day but we can provide far better care with much greater results if we can ‘break the cycle,’” added Bennet. “What happens is a person gets off their meds and the social worker loses track of them. So they act out, get in jail until they’ll take their medicines, and see a judge. They get out and – boom – something happens. They drop their meds, the symptoms return and the cycle begins again.”
The pilot program will take between one and two years to handle 50 patients. “There are so many facets to this that Janna has been assigned by Mayor Coppinger on a full-time basis. Sheriff Hammond wants me to do as much as I can and Linda Bennett has been added part time. The Chattanooga Housing Authority is really involved and, for instance, we had a great meeting with Erlanger’s leaders the other day. Memorial Hospital and Blue Cross-Blue Shield were our first contributors.”
“When we sat down with city mayor Andy Berke he bought in completely. He’s been doing work with the homeless veterans and realizes the huge amount of data that must be gathered and he has committed to be that part of the program. You have no idea what that means. The CSH team could hardly believe Mayor Berke did that but Andy has been doing it already. He understands what it will take to make this work.”
Last fall Janna discovered Moore Place in Charlotte where in the first two years, a diversion model involving 84 patients saved the county $2.5 million. How? 648 fewer emergency room visits, 292 fewer hospital days, 90 fewer arrests, 1,050 fewer days in jail and 76 percent fewer 9-1-1 calls.
“The financial savings in Nashville and in Knoxville are already incredible,” Sheriff Hammond said, “but the jail is no longer a bottleneck, people are getting treatment, and the best part is our society is doing what is right,” said the sheriff.
“One more thing … don’t give me credit for this,” said Hammond. “A lot of wonderful people have a hand in what will be one of the best things this county has ever done. In the end, all that matters is the people we serve. And never forget every last one of us matters to Someone who is bigger than the rest of us.”
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“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” -- – Ralph Waldo Emerson
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“Compassion is a verb.” --  Thich Nhat Hanh
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“I follow three rules: Do the right thing, do the best you can, and always show people you care.” Lou Holtz
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