City plan would force some of the 'hardest to house' to get help

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The city may soon do more to force chronically homeless people with severe mental illnesses to get treatment.

A new proposal would target those who repeatedly refuse help because of mental illness, drug use or both.

There are more than 200 people on Oahu streets who suffer from severe mental illnesses, according to estimates. Add to that hundreds more who are homeless and addicted to drugs.

Scores in both groups repeatedly refuse help from homeless service providers.

To address that, the mayor is proposing to spend $500,000 for a new program that could force many of them into treatment — whether they want it or not.

"We're providing the opportunity for psychiatric service support," said Marc Alexander, executive director of the mayor's Office of Housing. "We're also providing the opportunity for legal support because it costs money to go through the assisted community treatment process."

Hawaii is one of 46 states that allows the courts to step in and provide involuntary treatment for people who are incapacitated by mental illness.

But the law is rarely used on Oahu, mainly because there's no money to cover the cost of legal fees.

"We've been very short for years on that," said state Sen. Josh Green, an ER doctor.

He supports the city's effort and complementary efforts by the state.

Green said the problem will only get worse if government continues to neglect behavioral health care.

"Until we get some of the health components and the legal components supported will will continue to see the cycle of homelessness churn," Green said.

Money for the program will also go towards the cost of psychiatric care.

Alexander said it's an investment that could end up saving taxpayers millions in the long run.

"An unsheltered homeless person costs the community between $40,000 and $80,000 a year," he said. "When you invest in services like this we can save the community that money and help people who are really in need."

The City Council still has some time to decide if it wants to fund the program. The final budget is approved in June.

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