Lessons for California from the Virginia Tech report

By Dogtown Commoner | Posted at 12:43 am, August 31st, 2007 | Topic: politics

Last Friday, Governor Schwarzenegger used his veto power to cut funds for AB 2034, known as “Integrated Services for Homeless Adults with Serious Mental Illness,” which pays for local programs that provide services to California’s large number of mentally ill homeless people. AB 2034 has by most accounts been valuable and effective, and the elimination of funding (saving $55 million, and helping appease GOP legislators who supported the budget only after the governor agreed to make $700 million in cuts) has been appropriately criticized.

In the wake of Schwarzenegger’s cut, the recently released report on the Virginia Tech massacre is worth paying attention to. Here are two of the 21 major findings:

2. During Cho’s junior year at Virginia Tech, numerous incidents occurred that were clear warnings of mental instability. Although various individuals and departments within the university knew about each of these incidents, the university did not intervene effectively. No one knew all the information and no one connected all the dots.

5. Virginia’s mental health laws are flawed and services for mental health users are inadequate. Lack of sufficient resources results in gaps in the mental health system including short term crisis stabilization and comprehensive outpatient services. The involuntary commitment process is challenged by unrealistic time constraints, lack of critical psychiatric data and collateral information, and barriers (perceived or real) to
open communications among key professionals.

This is not to suggest that massacres like Virginia Tech will become commonplace under the new budget. But as programs for the mentally ill are reduced, the criminal justice system inevitably picks up much of the slack. While $55 million sounds like a lot of money, the consequences of cutting programs for the mentally ill homeless may in fact be far more expensive. With less outreach and services available to an at-risk population, it is a certainty that some untreated people will become entangled in an already-overwhelmed criminal justice system. So rather than simply saving money, the elimination of AB 2034 essentially transfers the cost to the budgets of police departments, courts, and the department of corrections. Those added costs won’t show up as a line-item in the annual budget, but they are there nonetheless. To put the numbers in some perspective: AB 2034 cost $55 million; the total budget is over $145 billion, including almost $10 billion for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

Aside from the strictly financial costs, there are social costs to cutting services for the homeless and mentally ill. And aside from all costs, financial and social, there is simple morality. Few segments of the population are more vulnerable than the mentally ill homeless. If we cannot set aside a small piece of an enormous budget to help people with no homes, a serious mental illness, and (often) little or no support from family or friends, then how can we justify spending much more money to, for example, protect the homes of people who have chosen to live next to a large fire-prone forest? I’m not suggesting that we stop fighting fires, but I am suggesting that we also fight the fires that rage inside some people’s tormented minds.