Changes would make it easier to force homeless with severe mental illnesses to get treatment

Updated: Apr. 26, 2019 at 5:11 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - It may soon be easier for mental health professionals and the court to force chronically homeless people with severe mental illnesses into treatment.

Within hours of a deadline that would have killed the proposal, lawmakers voted unanimously Friday to pass changes to the the state’s Assisted Community Treatment Law.

They agreed that people don’t have to be dangerous to get treatment ordered by a court.

Mental health advocates say the way the ACT law is worded currently has kept hundreds of homeless people suffering from mental illness trapped on the streets.

“The previous law made it too hard for us to intervene," said Lt. Gov. Josh Green. "Now heath professionals can intervene more efficiently when people are really mentally ill and stuck on the street.”

Under current law, someone diagnosed with a mental illness can only be forced to take psychiatric medication if they’re suicidal or threatening to hurt someone else.

It’s a threshold the majority of homeless people suffering from severe mental illness don’t reach.

[Read more: Advocates, families face overwhelming barriers to help homeless with severe mental illness]

So oftentimes, it takes years to convince these homeless patients they need help.

“Normally, folks don’t accept treatment services in the street,” said outreach worker Justin Phillips. “Usually people say no I’m fine I’ll do it later.”

Added Institute for Human Services Executive Director Connie Mitchell: “A lot of folks don’t even realize they’re ill. They don’t understand the circumstances they’re living with."

Mental health advocates agree the changes made Friday are a good start.

But IHS spokesman Kimo Carvalho said lawmakers must provide the money and resources needed to efficiently help all the people who need it.

“This law no longer provides resources to implement ACT orders. It no longer mandates intervention at the hospital level. And it de-funded the public guardian and psychiatry, which were key barriers for judges to rule in favor of this law,” he said, in a statement.

“While it’s important to celebrate small wins, the burden realistically falls once again on private donors and IHS to find resources to serve a small handful of people, which conflicts with the intent of this law getting more mentally ill people off the streets quickly.”

The proposal is expected to come to final vote Tuesday.

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