Mental health funding cuts fueled homelessness in Colorado

By Kristin Jones

I-News at Rocky Mountain PBS

Mark Maseros used to be a repeat customer at the ER when he wasnt in jail for drugs or theft.

Now 54, Maseros spent three decades living homeless in Denver. Hooked on heroin that he took to self-medicate what he now recognizes as an anxiety disorder, he was taken to the emergency room after overdosing. Or he walked in with panic attacks.

It was always good to go to the emergency room, because youd get things to deal with your uncomfortableness, says Maseros. If I said the magic words that I wanted to kill myself, theyd set me up in a bed.

Mark Maseros talks to a man panhandling in the Capitol Hill area. (Photo by Joe Mahoney of INews at Rocky Mountain PBS.)

Over the years, Maseros said he was diagnosed bipolar, tripolar and any number of other psychiatric disorders.

But he never got the sustained care he needed until four years ago, when the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless found housing for him, and he joined group therapy to help get the better of his anxiety.

Im happy now, says Maseros, who does rounds through downtown Denver on his bike, looking for others who are suffering as he once did. Maseros tries to point people to the services that are available in the city. He knows that without help some of them will end up dead.

The president of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, John Parvensky, says there are many more like Maseros who want help but cant get it. His organization stopped carrying a waiting list for mental health services when it reached 2,000 people.

Parvensky believes there is a straight line between the decrease in funding for mental health and especially the decline in inpatient capacity and the increase in homelessness in Colorado.

He estimates that around 40 percent of the adult homeless in the state suffer from serious mental illness diagnoses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or severe depression that keep people from working and living in housing.

We saw the biggest spike in homelessness in the 1980s, says Parvensky, and it really correlated to both the de-institutionalization as the state closed down the mental health facilities, and the funding that was promised to provide community-based services never materialized.

Patrick Fox, a state Department of Human Services official who oversees the mental institutes at Fort Logan and Pueblo, says that additional mental health funding pledged by the state will work to alleviate pressure on emergency rooms and jails and care for the Colorados most vulnerable populations where they are.

But Parvensky, who has watched the states homeless population more than triple since he joined the nonprofit in 1985, believes the chronic underfunding will be tough to undo.

Its a down payment, says Parvensky, but unfortunately its a drop in the bucket compared to the need were seeing here in the metro Denver area and across the state.