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New mental health bill takes aim at cycle of jail, homelessness

The bipartisan measure was introduced as a hopeful long-term solution.

ATLANTA — Georgia lawmakers in both parties introduced a bill Tuesday to address the state’s mental health care issues and homelessness.  

Last year lawmakers passed a landmark mental health bill – and then immediately promised another bill that will be considered in the final 18 days of the 2023 legislative session.

State Rep. Todd Jones (R-Cumming) says he gets calls every week from Georgians who can’t find mental health resources for desperately ill family members. 

"'What am I supposed to do?' 'I can’t find a bed,'" Jones said Tuesday, describing such a call.

Maria Manning’s son Jaylen – who has severe autism -- ended up in Grady’s emergency room after a destructive rampage in her house. Jaylen stayed in the ER for two months because there was no other treatment option, as described in an 11Alive News investigation. 

KEEPING SERIES | He needed crisis care. It took 2 months living in an ER to get it.

"We know people are served better in community-based settings closer to their families with more freedom," said state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur), who teamed up with Jones and other lawmakers to begin what they hope will be a long-term solution.

They want to attack a specific question: how so many folks with mental health issues end up homeless on the streets of Atlanta and elsewhere. The bill would strengthen communications between health and law enforcement authorities – creating systems to diagnose mental health issues when folks get out of local jails and before they end up homeless again.

"Basically, we see them going between health care, the jail and prison system, homelessness and you can almost take that triangle and go either clockwise or counterclockwise," Jones said.

Backers say it could be a much-needed step forward.

"What is happening now is we are housing these people in the most expensive and least effective way possible," said Elizabeth Appley, an advocate for the homeless and mentally ill. "We’re housing them in prisons and jails and emergency rooms and hospitals but we’re bringing them no closer to recovery, to stability, to restoration to their community."

Backers said the bill is more of a blueprint than it is a fix.  Backers say it will require years of effort and fine-tuning – if they can get it passed this legislative session. 

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