Houston Mayor

Mental Health Services Become Political Fodder in Houston Mayoral Race

Houston mayoral candidates bemoan effect of untreated mental illness on police and jails

Seven candidates for mayor of Houston talk about untreated mental illness as a civic burden at the University of St. Thomas on Aug. 31.
Seven candidates for mayor of Houston talk about untreated mental illness as a civic burden at the University of St. Thomas on Aug. 31.
The lawyer for a man charged with murder in the fatal shooting of a Harris County sheriff's deputy said Tuesday his client has a history of mental illness. The revelation came as untreated mental illness – and its effect on police and jails –became a political talking point in the Houston mayoral race.

Seven of the leading candidates gathered to discuss the problem at the University of St. Thomas, at a forum sponsored by the Mental Health America of Greater Houston. Bill Kelly, the organization's policy director, extracted pledges from all the candidates that they would not cut any city spending on mental health and homeless programs.

Texas ranks near the bottom of the states for spending on mental health. This remains true despite the legislature adding $450 million to mental health budgets in the past two sessions.

State representative Sylvester Turner claimed credit for pushing those budgets in Austin, and would continue that advocacy as mayor.

"If you're going to fix our streets and our roads, let's fix our people as well," said Turner, a Democrat who serves as vice chair of the house appropriations committee.

Center-right candidate Bill King said the next mayor should pull together private philanthropists to tackle the issue. As a model of such public-private cooperation, he cited Haven for Hope, a campus for homeless services in San Antonio.

"It was built mostly with private funds, it has a variety of kinds of care, including a place where you can sleep outside, because sometimes schizophrenia presents itself as someone that doesn't like to sleep indoors," King said.

"I just think if San Antonio can do it, certainly Houston can do it," King added.

Candidate Ben Hall referenced the Aug. 28 fatal shooting of Deputy Darren Goforth during his statements. The suspect in the shooting, Shannon Miles, was twice committed to public psychiatric facilities, according to his attorney.

"This is more than simply theory," Hall said. "This is a real-life issue of safety as well as humanitarian care for those most in need."

Chris Bell, a former Democratic congressman and city council member, went on the attack against former sheriff Adrian Garcia. Bell blamed Garcia for the 2013 case of Terry Goodwin, a mentally-ill inmate who was found neglected in a dirty cell at the Harris County jail.

"We have all seen what can happen when there's a lack of compassion and a lack of leadership in that jail facility. It's horrifying," Bell said.

Garcia defended his record, saying he acted quickly as soon as he found out about Goodwin's condition. He fired six jail staffers over the incident and suspended 29 others.

"When I found out about it, I took full responsibility. I took action," Garcia said. "I put policies and procedures in place to keep it from happening again."

The Harris County Commissioners later settled with Goodwin for $400,000. Two detention officers have also been indicted on felony charges for falsifying documents in the case.

Garcia tried to move the conversation upstream, emphasizing that the severe shortage of community resources for mental health treatment is what causes the seriously ill to cycle in and out of jails and shelters.

"Until we provide continuum of support and better access to care, every county jail will continue to be challenged with these issues," Garcia said.

Half a million adult Texans have a severe and persistent mental illness, but only 31 percent receive treatment, according to the Mental Health America of Greater Houston.

Texas ranks 48th in per capita spending on mental health, averaging $40 annually compared to the U.S. average of $120.

"Things have gotten better but we have such a long way to go," Kelly said.

All the candidates promised not to cut funding for the city's mental health and homeless programs, and some even promised to increase funds or start new programs. None explained how they would pay for their initiatives, except for Bill King. He mentioned that he would consider dissolving the police department's mounted horse patrol to pay for more officers in the mental health division.

 

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