Charleston is a city on the rise. We have invested in places and activities that make our city more vibrant. We have made our city more inclusive. We have invested in our infrastructure and our local businesses. We have secured our city coffers and we have created a plan of action for future growth.
We have also refused to continue sweeping under the proverbial rug the challenges this city faces.
Chief among them is the number and circumstances of those who — for various reasons — find themselves living on our streets.
The truth is there is not a simple solution. Anyone who tells you otherwise — or offers a quick fix — simply does not understand or is not being honest about the complexities of this monumental undertaking.
This complex challenge calls for multifaceted and comprehensive solutions.
We find ourselves trying to address a pandemic, homelessness, substance use, and mental health — all at once and with resources already stretched thin.
For those who are down on their luck, struggling with financial constraints or rent payments, experiencing mental illness, suffering from addiction or a combination thereof we are here to help you. But for those who are simply here to engage in criminal behavior such as vandalism, burglary, drug dealing and sex trafficking we are not going to turn a blind eye and simply hope you go away.
If you break the law, you will be brought to justice.
Our police officers are doing their job — arresting people who commit crimes. However, oftentimes we ask too much of our officers because there is no other system in place to deal with the mental health, substance use and homelessness issues they and our EMS workers face every single day.
We work incredibly hard to try to get people the mental health services they need, but the services barely exist. There are few state-run facilities and limited private beds because treatment is often cost-prohibitive.
Jailing people with mental health and substance use issues is not the answer. But when there’s no place for folks to go to get the services they need, they get arrested over and over — finally ending up in the largest mental health system in our country: our jail system.
This is the endless cycle we deal with every single day.
For years, at least from the city’s perspective, dealing with these issues meant treating all individuals living on the street the same regardless of their circumstances.
Our administration knew we could not keep doing the same things over and over and expect different results. That’s why we created the Mayor’s CARE (Coordinated Addiction Response Effort) Office.
Our CARE team is in the field working with those who need help. We’ve created partnerships with social service agencies and hospitals that didn’t previously exist. We’ve helped more than 200 people who have overdosed or asked for help. We work daily with our unsheltered and vulnerable population—helping them find a place to stay, a meal to eat, a place to work, and resources to help get them back on their feet and moving forward.
We have proven that people-focused solutions work — that proof is in our numbers. However, people-focused solutions — without robust system-focused solutions — are not sufficient to address the complex issues our communities are facing.
We are all literally working around the clock — and we will continue our work — but cities can only do so much on our own. The state and federal governments need to act — immediately.
That is why I am asking the governor to call and the state Legislature to enter a Special Session to act upon seven steps toward addressing the problems facing our communities:
n Establish the West Virginia Behavioral Health Reform Council to conduct a comprehensive review of and action plan for the behavioral health system of care in West Virginia.
n Pass the Jim Ramstad Model State Parity Legislation to hold health insurers accountable for discriminating against those with mental health and substance use disorders by wrongfully denying coverage of care.
n Provide funding for 25 additional Mental Health Courts, located throughout the State, to help people who need treatment and help cities curb the increase in petty crimes facing our communities.
n Pilot a program to cover the cost of college tuition or student loans for 100 individuals willing to work in West Virginia in the mental health field, with a focus on a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner fellowship.
n Establish a pilot program to increase student access to tele-behavioral health services in schools, libraries and community centers.
n Expand funding for Quick Response Teams (QRT) to allow the QRT model to be expanded to address real time mental health issues.
n Utilize the 9-8-8 Crisis Hotline Center to operate State and locally funded Mobile Crisis Teams.
These system-focused solutions will not address every problem facing our communities or solve the problem completely. But they will serve as a foundation for the system we need to address the most complex problem of our generation.
We are here because of decades of disregard when it comes to effectively dealing with mental health, substance use and homelessness. Now, cities and local service agencies across the country are dealing with the fallout—on their own and without the necessary resources and support. We need fundamental change at every level. We need bold action.
We understand these are not inexpensive endeavors, but the cost of action pales in comparison to the cost of inaction. These solutions will save the state millions and save countless lives. We also have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help support solutions through funding provided by the American Rescue Plan (ARP).
We call on the state to join us in taking big, measurable steps towards fixing these complex issues.