Advocates and organizations that support or provide mental health housing are urging state leaders to keep providing funding for what they are calling a severely underfunded program due to stagnant financing over three decades while costs and needs have increased.
Local officials said they’ve been asking for more funding for current and future programs for years and will continue to do so.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the state decided to create mental health housing through the state Office of Mental Health. For around three decades the state provided funding toward the program, but never increased it to the level to meet rising costs and needs.
The state’s 2022-23 $220 billion budget included $65 million toward raising reimbursement rates for existing housing, which helped but didn’t cover all the issues facing the program, said Sebrina Barrett, the executive director of the Association for Community Living, which is made up of non-profit organizations across the state dealing with mental health housing needs.
Barrett said the state’s 2023-24 $229 billion budget approved in May included another $39 million for the Office of Mental Health toward existing mental health housing.
However, Assembly Health Committee member Assemblyman Phil Steck, D-Colonie, said that $39 million has not been allocated specifically toward existing housing yet by the Office of Mental Health.
Barrett also said that while the 2023-24 includes a 4% cost of living adjustment increase, it was still less than half of what the organizations that make up the association had asked for based on the July 2022 8.5% consumer price index.
“In the past five years, program expenses have increased approximately 20%,” said Sybil Newell, the executive director of RISE Housing and Support Services. “In the same period, RISE increased staff salaries 27%, but the state COLAs that are intended to fund those increases have only amounted to approximately 13%. Human service agencies like RISE are in a precarious position when we are forced to compete for staff with large retailers who are able to pay more for less skilled work.”
RISE helps people with housing and recovery needs in Saratoga and surrounding communities.
Barrett said the nature of the work and pay people receive has made it incredibly difficult to find employees, resulting in around one in four positions remaining open.
Staffing, especially for RISE’s 24/7 mental health housing programs, is currently the organization’s biggest challenge, Newell said. She said that issue was only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are frequently short staffed in programs that serve people who need a great deal of support and have complex needs,” Newell said. “This has led to existing staff working overtime, or being unable to use their vacation time, which ultimately leads to staff burnout. While RISE appreciates recent rate increases and investments in mental health housing, they have not been enough to fill the gap and allow us to pay our direct care staff as much as we believe they are worth for the vital work they do.”
Barrett said the pay is so inadequate that many of the staff have two jobs.
On top of staffing issues, Barrett said the state’s reimbursement formula doesn’t account for additional costs the existing housing programs have needed to take on over the years such as security measures, including guards and cameras or technology to keep up with maintaining records.
The other issue the agencies are facing is that 40% of the population they’re serving are 55 or older. Barrett said the task force would study the needs of that aging population
“We cannot stress enough the vital importance of allowing those on their mental health recovery journey to remain in their homes, among the community,” Barrett said in a press release following the passage of the budget. “Nursing homes are not equipped to admit those with mental illness who also exhibit other significant medical challenges; similarly, our agencies are seeing a growing need for resources to serve the aging community with dignity.”
Assembly Mental Health Committee member Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, said he was disappointed the task force wasn’t included in the final budget.
“I’m urging the governor to explore other avenues to get this important initiative started as soon as possible,” he said. “Aging in place is a vital aspect of mental health care, and we must ensure that our aging population has the necessary support and resources to maintain their mental well-being.”
However, Steck, who sits on the Health Committee, said he’s “not a big believer in task forces.”
“It’s the old saying that the first thing you do when you don’t really want to do something is form a committee,” he said. “We know what the issues are.”
Steck said current housing should be appropriately supported but the state also needs to expand housing to meet the needs of the state.
“It’s not sufficient,” he said. “The governor’s program funds a lot of additional mental health hospital beds, those are for dealing with someone who is in a profound crisis. So, if you’re acknowledging that there’s a need for additional hospital beds that by implication acknowledges that you need additional transitional housing. The system that exists now has been inadequate.”
Barrett said the organizations that make up the association currently support 40,000 clients with mental health housing but the reality is that the number of homes available for mental health housing in the state should be at least double that.
Santabarbara said he’s urging the governor to do more before the end of session on June 8.
Reporter Shenandoah Briere can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @ByBriere.