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Abandoned : Loss of Funding Dooms Outreach for Mentally Ill

September 01, 1988|ALAN CITRON | Times Staff Writer

Scotty was an antisocial oddball living the life of an urban hermit when the Project Homebase team found him wandering through a Beverly Hills park.

With his modified Mohawk and his spacey blue eyes, Scotty looked as if he had just dropped in from another planet. But his story was more profound than that. Scotty was one of the thousands of mentally ill homeless people who had fallen through the webbing of the Westside's tattered social service net.

Project Homebase workers Robby Markovic and Pepper Mann spent more than a year just persuading him to speak freely to them and accept the bag lunches they delivered. Now, just as the two are making real strides toward getting Scotty off the streets and into treatment, their visits are about to end.

Only for Mentally Ill

Project Homebase, the only mobile social service outreach program geared strictly to the mentally ill homeless on the Westside, has lost its funding.

"This is really painful for us," Markovic said this week. "This program, which everyone said was ahead of its time, is going to go out of existence."

Project Homebase is a victim of social service cutbacks in the Los Angeles County mental health system. The program, administered by Jewish Family Services, was one of several dropped from the funding list this fiscal year.

Markovic has independently scraped up enough money from the Homeless Health Care Agency, established with money from a fund-raising effort called Comic Relief, to continue operations for two more months. But the mobile service, which reaches about 30 people a week in an area stretching from Hollywood to the beach, will run out of gas after that unless the county comes up with the funds needed to continue.

Funds Are Somewhere

Markovic contends that the money can be found if mental health officials look hard enough. "Others have complained and received their money," he said. "The county may have money in its own system it doesn't even know about."

But Fran T. Griffith, the county's homeless coordinator, said the decision is irreversible. Griffith said there just aren't enough funds to cover all of the service programs, including one as "highly valued" as Project Homebase.

"This is not a reflection on them," Griffith said. "The program is excellent. This kind of decision is a Sophie's choice. It's very difficult."

The county has supported Project Homebase for the last two fiscal years. It received $120,000 in start-up funds for 1986-87 and $100,000 for 1987-88.

Mary Rainwater, the county's mental health services coordinator, said Project Homebase was funded in the past with money left over from other programs. Due to budget cutbacks, she said the additional money has dried up.

The county received about $12 million in funding requests for the mentally ill homeless this fiscal year, but had only $10 million to parcel out.

The two Westside agencies that qualified for funds were Venice's St. Joseph Center, which received $80,000, and Santa Monica West, which got $165,000. Rainwater said the agencies were selected for the variety of services they offer.

"We do an ongoing assessment of all of the programs we fund," Rainwater said. "And that helps us decide where our energies should be spent. . . . Project Homebase is a very good program. It's not that they are bad. This is all about dollars. When your dollars shrink, so do your services."

Westside social service providers have complained about budget inadequacies for years. While the area attracts the second-highest number of homeless people, behind downtown's Skid Row, the service network is threadbare.

Susan Dempsay, who heads the Westside chapter of the Alliance for the Mentally Ill, said the number of homeless mentally ill adults wandering the streets of communities such as Santa Monica, Venice, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood and West Los Angeles has nearly doubled during the last year.

How many of them there are is uncertain, but experts say that one-third to one-half of the homeless people suffer from some form of mental disorder.

"The problem is growing because we're not putting any more money into social services," Dempsay said. "I don't think that the interest is there. . . . It's a battle to get funds. We've had to fight for our lives."

Considered Unique

According to Dempsay, Project Homebase is unique and valuable because it reaches the mentally ill who are most fearful of seeking help.

Markovic said their mission is one of patience, since it can often take years to establish bonds of trust with the most deeply disturbed street people. In one instance Markovic and Mann helped a woman track down her missing sister by carrying her picture around as they cruised the streets.

But in most cases they make their contacts by simply keeping an eye out for anyone disheveled or disoriented-looking. Last year, Project Homebase saw about 1,500 people. The ultimate goal, Mann said, is to get them off the streets and into treatment or on disability. Most, however, are resistant to change.

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