It was a cool September morning when Max was dropped off at the front door of the Poverello Center with only the clothes on his back. Max served our country during Operation Iraqi Freedom and suffers from severe mental health conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder due to his service. After spending several weeks at the Montana State Hospital, Max had nowhere else to go.
Like 30 percent of the veterans we serve here at the Poverello Center, Max does not qualify for health care or mental health care benefits through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (the VA). When he was dropped off at the Poverello Center, he did not have the medications he needed or a way to access services to address his mental health. Max and other veterans like him are casualties of the state of Montana’s drastic cutbacks to case management and other supports for people facing substance abuse and mental health disorders.
As the director of veterans’ services at the Poverello Center, and the daughter of a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, I am very dedicated to the work my team and I do every day to help people like Max who have served our country to get back on their feet. Poverello Veterans’ Services include our two transitional housing programs, Housing Montana Heroes and the Valor House, and supports for veterans who are getting help through the Poverello Center’s Emergency Shelter program.
From January to March of 2018, the Poverello Center saw a 25 percent increase in the number of people using our services compared to the same time period in 2017. One night in February we provided shelter to 205 individuals, many of them veterans. One of the biggest drivers in this growth stems from extremely limited access to public support programs and resources. Without supports like case management and mental health counseling in place, many individuals were not able to maintain stable housing.
Once someone is homeless they are much more likely to use emergency medical services and have negative interactions with our criminal justice system. Just as homelessness can be a consequence of mental illness, the day-to-day risks and challenges that come along with not having housing can intensify mental health and trauma symptoms. The cost to our communities to keep people housed and healthy is much lower than the costs associated with rehousing and stabilization once someone becomes homeless.
Given situations like Max’s, it is imperative that the Montana Legislature restore funding for case management and other mental health services to the 2016 levels before the cuts. Current cuts are essentially imposing a hidden tax on Montanans by increasing the cost of medical services and forcing law enforcement agencies to spend an excess of their resources on crisis mental health interventions. At the same time the current lack of appropriate and proactive resources strips away the dignity and worth of people like Max who signed up, in good faith, to serve our country.
I work on the front lines to serve some of our most vulnerable neighbors, who have also served our country. I am seeing the direct consequences of these budget cuts as we pass costs along to more expensive interventions like law enforcement and emergency medical services. It is vital that we restore funding to important, evidence-based practices, like case management and other mental health services that save the taxpayer money over the long term and treat people in need, including some of our nation’s veterans, with respect.