The Cajun bayou experienced the worst summer of fishing ever — for everyone except Boudreaux, who always caught his limit. The local sheriff grew suspicious and showed up at the boat dock one morning to join Boudreaux. As the day grew hotter and there wasn't the slightest nibble, Boudreaux grew restless. He pulled out a stick of dynamite, and the sheriff excitedly yelled that Boudreaux was caught in the act. The cagey fisherman calmly lit the fuse, tossed the explosive at the sheriff's feet and said, "Sheriff, are you gonna sit and talk, or you gonna fish?"
This time, it is Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond who is lighting a fuse, not a dynamite fuse, but the Frequent Users System Engagement program. It is a major part of our Hamilton County Justice and Mental Health Initiative that has progressed from talk to action. FUSE is a proven approach for treating mentally ill repeat "users" who tend to cycle through the jails, courts, hospitals, and other local crisis services at high costs to the community with no apparent benefit. Instead of locking them in overcrowded jails with no treatment, FUSE offers them housing with wrap-around services — and hope.
The sheriff estimates between 35 percent and 40 percent of the 1,600 inmates in our two county jails are mentally ill. Like other communities, our jails became substitutes for mental health facilities that were phased out during the last 70 years. The treatment those institutions once provided is now parceled among many federal, state, and local government and humanitarian agencies. FUSE is designed to bring those disparate agencies together through three main components: data-driven problem solving; policy and systems reform; and targeted housing and services.
Hammond notes that within one five-year period, housing only seven recurring offenders in the jail cost taxpayers almost $500,000. Even more astounding, over a recent seven-month period, Erlanger Hospital spent $2.9 million to treat 172 such frequent users.
Earlier this year, after discovering how successful the FUSE program is in 30 other U.S. cities, Hammond and several other Hamilton County officials traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina, for a first-hand look. In the first two years of the program, Moore Place, (the housing and treatment facility) saved Mecklenburg County taxpayers more than $2.4 million. There was an 82 percent reduction in arrests, and 1,050 fewer nights were spent in jail by mentally ill offenders. Additionally, calls for medics and hospital rides dropped by 76 percent. Most significantly, more than 90 percent of FUSE "consumers" did not end up back in jail.
The program offers hope for many of our county's most vulnerable and unfortunate citizens, but the implementation hasn't been easy. For instance, this year a federal grant of $3.4 million was turned down despite many hours of work. It was a setback and delayed implementation of FUSE, but it didn't stop the program. Instead, the sheriff's office and county officials turned to local sources for support. Funds for future housing and support services are coming in from local, state and federal resources, but the county still needs start-up funds. "It is truly a public-private undertaking," the sheriff said.
Like Chattanoogans before us, we can solve this problem by joining the sheriff in supporting the Hamilton County Justice and Mental Health Initiative's FUSE project.
As Boudreaux might say, "Light the fuse. Time to fish!"
Roger Smith, a local author, is a frequent contributor to the Times Free Press.