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Voters face a tax increase for mental health services. Here's who it helps.

Scott Wartman, Cincinnati Enquirer - October 18, 2022

Most drivers along Interstate 75 wouldn't notice the thicket of honeysuckles off the Galbraith Road exit just north of Cincinnati.

Only a small, barely perceptible opening between bushes indicates it's been home to nine people since December.

"Sitting here, can you tell there’s a camp there? You would never know," said Danielle Murphy as she pulled over her van on the exit on a recent afternoon.

A family member of one of the homeless camp's residents called Greater Cincinnati Behavioral Health Services in the spring to check on their relative. The East Walnut Hills nonprofit dispatched Murphy and members of its homeless outreach, called Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness.

Hamilton County Issue 9 on this year's ballot could decide the fate of Murphy's agency and numerous other programs from 25 different mental health agencies. They depend on the $36 million in property tax revenue brought in by Hamilton County's mental health property tax levy.

Voting "yes" would raise the mental health levy 32%, costing homeowners an additional $13.30 per $100,000 of their home's value assessed by the county auditor.

It's all or nothing. If the levy fails, the entire levy ceases.

Without the levy increase, mental health services would suffer drastic cuts in the face of inflation, leaders with the Hamilton County Mental Health and Recovery Services Board have said. The board doles out the money from the levy to the provider agencies.

It would pay for $2 million more annually in crisis response services and $2 million more in housing for the mentally ill, according to the Mental Health and Recovery Services Board.

The Enquirer talked with agencies and the people they help to get an idea of where the tax dollars are spent and how they make a difference in the lives of people with mental illness.

The levy goes to an army of psychiatrists, counselors, crisis hotlines and people that find housing for people with mental illness.

The hotline for those in 'emotional pain'

The levy will help ensure someone picks up the phone if you are having a mental health crisis, said Alex Rulon, director of community care for the nonprofit Talbert House. It will be there if someone just needs someone to talk to.

A majority of the calls the 40 operators in the Talbert House call center handle come from regulars, said Faith Anderson.

If you call 988, the national suicide hotline, or the local crisis line, 513-281-CARE, Anderson or one of her coworkers at the Talbert House call center will pick up. Often, the callers aren't suicidal, Anderson said. They just need someone to listen.

One regular caller will call as many as 30 times a night, said Anderson, who has worked at the Talbert House call center for four years.

"He’ll call, I’m going to sleep, I can’t sleep," said Anderson, 38, of Fairfield. "I’m going for a drive. I'm buying cigars, I can’t sleep. I just took my meds."

It's a form of therapy, those at the call center said.

"Hearing that someone is in such emotional pain that they need to reach out to us 30 times a day, that makes me sad to know we have people in the community struggling like that," Rulon said. "You also have to think about the fact that person is out driving. So other people are potentially at risk if that person doesn’t have access to care."

The Talbert House, which oversees the crisis line, gets the most dollars from the levy: $7.6 million this year for a variety of services that includes the call center.

Since 2020 when the pandemic started, the line has seen a big jump significant increase in traffic. Calls have increased 138% in the past five years, going from an average of 1,200 calls a month in 2017 to an average of 3,000 calls a month in the fiscal year ending in 2022, according to Talbert House statistics.

Another organization, the Mental Health Access Point, also operates a mental health crisis line, 513-558-8888 and gets $1.9 million a year from the levy. That line averages 14,000 calls a year, both from providers and members of the public looking to find treatment services.

In addition to that, Talbert House operators also take calls from the national suicide hotline, 988, and are the chief backup for the entire state of Ohio. Calls from the national hotline to Talbert House's call center in Bond Hill have doubled in two years to 800 a month. The launch in July of the national suicide hotline 988 accounts for some of that increase, but not all.

The federal government pays for the 988 portion. The local line is funded with local dollars.

Talbert House has had to triple its staff at its call center in the past two years to 40 people.

Why keep 281-CARE with 988 now live? Because people depend on it, Rulon and the center's operators said.

Take for instance the man who called the suicide hotline on an early September morning. The Enquirer was there to observe a morning of operations at Talbert House.

An operator named "Roxanne" picked up. Operators go by pseudonyms for protection. Roxanne didn't want to use her real name for this story.

"I'm sorry to hear that," Roxanne said. "Breakups are difficult. Everything about them."

The man wasn't suicidal, just having trouble dealing with the breakup with a girlfriend who was pregnant.

"A lot of it someone needs to get off their chest," Roxanne said.

But they also take people off the ledge. The first suicide call Anderson received four years ago took two hours. The person on the other end, a social worker despondent over an abusive boyfriend and stressful job, told Anderson she wanted to drive her car off a ledge.

Anderson said she's been on the other end of the line. She's attempted suicide. She's had to talk friends out of suicide. It's one of the reasons she took the job and has stayed in it.

"I told her no man is worth taking your life over," Anderson said. "She could always take a step back from her career. I had her laughing at the end of the call."

'This actually changed me'

Not everyone enters the system willingly at first.

It took a week in jail in August 2020 for Sumer Redmon. It wasn't the first time she was in jail. The 41-year-old Green Township resident said she had spent the past 20 years in and out of jail on various charges related to her drug addiction, such as disorderly conduct.

Redmon started doing drugs at the age of 11. It started with marijuana. Then progressed to alcohol, cocaine and opiates.

She said she didn't know at the time she was self-medicating. She learned 30 years later that she's bipolar, has borderline personality disorder and has post-traumatic stress syndrome.

"As a kid, the only thing I could do was lay in bed put my face in a pillow and scream at the top of my lungs," Redmon said. "That was the only thing I could do to make it feel like it was a little bit better. Then when I found out about weed and alcohol."

By August 2020, she had had enough. Eight months earlier, she had been arrested on Christmas Eve 2019 for possession of fentanyl, her first charge for drug possession.

Some caseworkers with Greater Cincinnati Behavioral Health Services visited her in the Hamilton County jail. Someone, evidently, thought that given her history she'd be perfect for the mental health court.

Run by three judges with a phalanx of mental health professionals, about 100 defendants a year come through the Hamilton County Mental Health Court. A court clinician diagnoses the person with a mental illness. They don't take violent offenders unless the victim's family is OK with it, said Judge Jody Luebbers, who co-founded the mental health court in 2009 and is now one of three mental health court judges.

They get put into treatment, both for mental issues and substance abuse. They meet multiple times a week with the judges, case managers and counselors to monitor their progress.

"They have to come every week, report to a case manager two or three times a week," Luebbers said. "We’re on them. It’s pretty intense." It's also cheaper than putting someone in jail, she noted.

The program has graduated 88 people in the past five years. Three have committed a new felony, Luebbers said.

How long each defendant takes to graduate from the program, if they graduate from the program, depends. It can take years. When finished, the graduates start with a clean slate, their felonies expunged.

For Redmon, it took two years.

"I’ve been locked up a lot and nothing has ever helped," Redmon said. "You just got to jail and come out with the same problems you went in with, if not more. This actually changed me."

In August 2020, Redmon found herself before Luebbers. Luebbers wasn't impressed with Redmon's lack of progress and threw her back in jail for another week, Redmon said.

Redmon's two children were in Florida with family on vacation they had planned for months.

"I had some time to sit in jail and I thought about it," Redmon said. "Why am I fighting this? I want to get sober. They're offering me all the help in the world."

She met multiple times a week with Luebbers, counselors from Greater Cincinnati Behavioral Health Services and mental health providers.

"They hit it from every angle," Redmon said. "They hit my anger. I don’t even scream anymore. Whereas before I’d scream all time. The simplest thing would set me off and I’m right back in jail."

She graduated from the mental health court in June 2020. She hopes to graduate soon from the University of Cincinnati where she's studying organizational leadership. She wants to join an organization that helps people on the streets suffering from mental health and drug addiction issues.

"My goal is to go into an existing nonprofit, go into the streets and find these people that need help," Redmon said.

Levy goes to those overlooked

Going out into the streets and finding people who need help is exactly what the Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness team does.

If the levy fails, the agency would lose one-third of its $400,000 annual budget. Whether that would spell the end of the program or they would have to adapt, agency managers couldn't say.

The general public doesn't often see the fruits of the money they spend on mental health. The levy helps people often overlooked, sometimes hidden behind a patch of honeysuckle, Murphy and other mental health providers said.

"Knock, knock," Murphy shouts as she steps gingerly through the opening in the thicket. "PATH homeless outreach. Anybody home? Hi, it's Danielle. How are you guys today?"

As Murphy walks forward, she comes into view of a cluster of tents comes into view amid the bushes. Murphy heads towards the camp cluttered with bicycles, grocery carts, blankets, wagons, laundry, and broken lawn ornaments.

A woman in a pink T-shirt emblazoned with "Life is Better" and ripped black jeans emerges to greet Murphy. She goes by the name "Gypsy," though many in the camp also call her "mother." She's the de facto leader and has lived in the camp since December when another homeless man, who goes by the name Leprechaun, found the place. Seven others followed them into the camp. According to Gypsy, one woman gave birth in the camp this year.

Out of the chaos of the undergrowth and piles of daily detritus, they've forged some semblance of order. The camp has an electric generator. A whiteboard tacked to a tree stump lists the schedule for each of the residents to stand at the highway exit and hold a sign asking for money from motorists.

On a recent Monday, Leprechaun was slated for the 8 to 9 a.m. and 1 to 2 p.m. shifts. Gypsy would take the 10 to 11 p.m. and 5 to 6 p.m. shifts. They're like a big family, Gypsy said.

"We have our moments like any other family, but we help each other out, food, stuff like that," Gypsy said. "I've always got food. We're trying to build a pantry."

Gypsy and Murphy know each other. Murphy checks in on the camp regularly. By the end of the year, they hope to find housing for Gypsy, who said she's been homeless for 15 years. It started with fentanyl patches for pain, she said. She's lived in encampments all over the Cincinnati region and in California.

By the end of the year, with the help of Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness, Gypsy hopes to have a permanent roof over her head for the first time in more than a decade. The agency works with the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless to help find housing and services. Gypsy also said she's working to get sober.

"I never thought I'd get off the street and Danielle has made me realize I can."

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