TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - EDITOR'S NOTE: This is just one of the many stories we will share Thursday night during our half-hour special Mental Health: Standing Up to Stigma. It will air live on KOLD News 13 at 6:30 p.m.
Mental health has become a major focus for the men and women in the justice system who work to keep people out of jail.
Lisa Surhio, an attorney at the Pima County Public Defender's Office, estimates 75 percent of her work covers clients who suffer from serious mental illness.
"Unfortunately, they're the people you see in the park and they're talking to themselves, not getting the treatment they deserve," she said. "Mental illness is exactly that, it's an illness and they deserve treatment no different than a diabetic deserves treatment for diabetes."
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Surhio sees steady housing as a recurring problem for her clients. She said it's a requirement for pre-trial release in many cases, but securing a place to stay is easier said than done.
"On a regular basis, I get a client who's in custody with a case pending who would be suitable for early release if she just had somewhere to go," Surhio said.
She describes the issue as a vicious cycle. While her team works to line up some housing, a client's mental health care provider will close his or her file after a month or two of no-contact.
A housing program won't accept someone without a referral from their care provider, according to Surhio. She said the judge won't approve a release without somewhere to go and her client can't re-enroll with a care provider while he or she is still in custody.
The 'cycle' creates more costs for the taxpayer, because the people with mental illness wind up waiting in jail until their trial for a minor offense while the Public Defender's Office straightens out their paperwork.
"Sometimes there is nothing we can do," Surhio said. "Sometimes these people will stay in jail, they'll go to prison and, unfortunately, they, after several months or several years in custody, they get released on the street no different than they were when they committed the offense."
The struggle to stay off the streets isn't any easier once someone has finished serving a sentence.
Kelly Pesano, a lead probation officer for Pima County, is one of a few who specializes in mental health cases.
She said her job is more like that of a social worker than a probation officer. Pesano is typically tasked with helping newly released clients track down food, clothing and, of course, housing.
"When you're incarcerated for 30 days of more, your Social Security gets cut off," she said "So even if they do have benefits, they come out of jail with nothing."
If loved ones aren't interested in helping someone with serious mental illness on probation, Pesano said she turns to a client's friends or closest contacts for even a couch to crash on for a while.
She said shelters are an option, but many won't accept someone who's been prescribed pills that may become a target by the other folks staying at the shelters.
The availability of a safe environment and reliable housing has a direct impact on someone's chances of staying out of jail, according to Pesano.
"There's no way someone can be successful on probation, parole, or any type of court supervision if their basic needs aren't being met," she said.
The search for housing can be more difficult for someone who is only suffering from mental illness. Pesano said many of the organizations she works with will focus on people who are also battling alcoholism or drug addiction.
She said a sober person may have to sit through unnecessary counseling sessions in order to secure a place to stay. It's an environment she said they have no need to experience.
In rare situations, probation officers have had to approve someone living on the streets. Pesano said it's not ideal, but some people insist on it
"If I approve the bridge, and I know which bridge you're under, and we have no other options for you, then sometimes that happens," she said. "It's not optimal for officer safety and us monitoring them, but it does happen."
Community Partners Inc is one of several organizations in southern Arizona that manages affordable housing for those with serious mental illness.
Chief Operating Officer Vanessa Seaney said through their subsidiaries, CPI reserves hundreds of apartments for people with SMI. She said they sign leases like everyone else and are treated no differently.
Properties are all over the Tucson area. She said the options available to the community are much better now than they were years ago.
"Certainly I've seen that over time that housing has dramatically improved over the years," Seaney said.
While the quality is better than what it used to be, the quantity is still lacking. Seaney agrees with Pesano and Surhio, who say there are not enough beds available.
They believe more money is the solution. Surhio said spending on mental health care would be cheaper than the approximately $31,000 annual cost of keeping someone in jail. She said the best way to convince state lawmakers that mental health is worth supporting is by defeating the stigma associated with it.
"It's just sad," she said. "I have days where I just go home depressed because these people need help, they want help and they can't get help."