Local donors helping with jail mental health initiative in Hamilton County

Local donors helping with jail mental health initiative in Hamilton County

January 14th, 2019 by Staff Report in Local Regional News

A program under development to treat rather than jail mentally ill people in Hamilton County is gathering local support but missed out on a big grant, according to the county sheriff's office.

County commissioners will vote next week to accept $120,000 in donations for the Frequent Users Systems Engagement (FUSE) program under development by partners including the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, mental health and medical providers, insurers and Chattanooga's housing agency.

The donations include $10,000 from UNUM; $20,000 from the Commmunity Foundation of Greater Chattanooga; $25,000 from the Weldon F. Osborne Foundation; $25,000 from CHI Memorial Hospital; and $40,000 from the Maclellan Foundation, commissioners were told at their Wednesday agenda session.

Bob Scheri, director of mission integration for CHI Memorial, told commissioners FUSE could be "transformative" in the lives of people with untreated mental illness, who often end up in jails or emergency rooms. He was there with Robin Posey of the Community Foundation, fiscal agent for the initiative.

Estimates are that as many as 40 percent of people in the Hamilton County Jail have untreated mental illness, addiction and other problems that keep them cycling in and out of the jail, courts and emergency rooms.

Getting those people into supportive housing and providing services and treatment will cost less than locking them up and will reduce jail populations, backers have said.

"This project really is the best face any of us could put on in terms of public and private partnerships," Scheri said.

G.A. Bennett, chief of staff for Sheriff Jim Hammond, said that although the partners hope to debut a pilot program in 2019, the loss of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration grant has slowed the pace of progress.

The five-year, $3.3 million grant would have funded mental health and medical providers in what's called an assertive community treatment team.

Not landing the grant means "we will have to start off a little bit later and a little bit smaller," Bennett said. But he said the substance abuse administration gave the county credit for broad collaboration toward the initiative and urged it to apply again this year.

"We feel quite certain that funding will come in, partners will continue to develop throughout the area and in the state and this will eventually come forward," he said.

Commissioners also will vote Wednesday whether to give communications firm Bowen & Bowen, LLC, a one-year contract to manage communications and fundraising for the initiative.

Bennett told commissioners the company was initially hired on a temporary basis to develop a fundraising plan and has raised $150,000 to date. He said the firm's $1,500 monthly fee will be paid from money already raised rather than taxpayer funds.