Advocates push for eviction-free housing for Hawaii's mentally ill

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Out of the 7,220 people who are homeless in the islands, it's estimated a third are mentally ill.

Of those, experts say, only about half will actually receive treatment.

"If you're poor or live in rural areas you're not going to be able to see a provider as quickly," said the executive director of Mental Health America of Hawaii, Trisha Kajimura. "That's the situation we are in with a lot of mentally ill people who are homeless. They are really past the point of a quick intervention."

For decades, advocates say that Hawaii's government has swept the issue of mental illness under the rug.

Access to psychiatric care in Hawaii is so short of the need that, on average, new patients wait between four and six months for their first appointment.

"So many people are trapped in this revolving door of homelessness, occasional hospitalization and frequent incarceration," said Paul Gionfriddo.

The head of Mental Health America is in Hawaii this week to discuss strategies with local providers. He says that in order to combat the problem, a top priority needs to be establishing "unconditional housing", or places where people can get treatment without the threat of eviction if they do something wrong.

"It's about bringing people in and saying we're going to suspend the normal rules but we are going to work with people toward recovery," said Gionfriddo.

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, mainly because there's no money to cover the cost of legal fees.

Advocates say lawmakers need to start funding those programs along with street psychiatry. Right now, there is only one street psychiatrist in the entire state.

"He has that extra knowledge and ability to prescribe right there if there is someone ready to start medication he can administer it," said Kajimura.

The price tag for all of this would no doubt be millions of dollars.

"The best way to pay for all of this is to take the money from where we've been putting it. That's jails and prisons," said Gionfriddo. "The money's there. We just need to take it and move it back to the healthcare delivery system where it belongs."

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