Pennsylvania Struggling To Accommodate Influx Of Mental Health Patients

By Paul Gaita 01/22/16

The ongoing budget wars between the political parties isn't helping.


Several boroughs in southwestern Pennsylvania are working overtime to house and help a higher-than-average concentration of people with mental illness and drug issues.

Budget issues, like the lengthy stalemate between Gov. Tom Wolf and House Republicans, have led to cuts in funding for housing and services for individuals with mental health and drug problems, which in turn has forced many of these patients into subsidized housing and state-sponsored social service centers in communities like Homestead and McKee’s Rock. And while many of these individuals present no problem to neighborhoods, police have found that the number of calls to respond to problems related to patients with mental health and drug-related issues has risen sharply in recent years.

The situation in these Allegheny County boroughs has developed into a particularly difficult Catch-22 for law enforcement and social service representatives alike. When budget problems shuttered larger mental health facilities like Mayview State Hospital, social service and for-profit providers were forced to seek more affordable locations to help their patients.

Lower-income areas like Homestead, McKees Rocks, and McKeesport provided a solution in the form of abandoned schools and institutions, as well as low-income private housing. While many of the patients who came to these areas were, as Victoria Livingstone, CEO of the state-funded Transitional Services Inc., noted, “employed and taxpayers and contributors to the community,” others added to an already substantial problem with crime in these neighborhoods.

In some cases, single individuals generated more than 20 calls to police in a single year, and flooded the area’s Mental Health Court cases. Homestead Police Chief Jeffrey DeSimone noted that in the past two years, his department has assisted in 48 Section 302 involuntary commitments, which subjects individuals believed to be suffering from severe mental illness, and posing a danger to themselves or others, to involuntary emergency examinations and treatment. Such procedures can require hours of participation by an officer, and as DeSimone notes, “for a small department, say two guys working, that leaves one officer working [the rest of the community].”

Life for those mental health and drug patients residing in private dwellings or in state-sponsored facilities is also a daily struggle. Heroin, prescription painkillers, and other drugs are relatively easy to obtain. Herb Flaherty, a 28-year-old McKees Rocks resident with a history of mental illness and drug addiction, said of his neighborhood, “If you’re in an active addiction, you’re going to get what you want.”

Judge Beth A. Lazzara, who runs the Mental Health Court, notes that while treatment and education are stressed in many of her rulings on cases, those jailed are eventually released back to the neighborhoods where they were arrested, which is where the social service programs are located. The problem circles back upon itself, and the immediate solution—funding for more substantial treatment—is not forthcoming.

“People can’t get the treatment and support they need,” said Victoria Livingstone. “They’ve been cutting and cutting and cutting and cutting mental health for the last decade. That’s why we have these mass shootings and tragedies.”

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.