Cut now, pay later? (credit: iheartfishtown/flickr)

By Mike Golub, The Lens contributing opinion writer |

City officials are right to decry the cuts to mental health services that could result from Gov. Bobby Jindal’s effort to plug a budget deficit.

Cutting services to individuals who are struggling with drug addictions and serious mental health issues is not only short-sighted and mean-spirited, it will stick taxpayers with higher costs down the line to cover the uptick in homelessness, criminality and pricey visits to emergency rooms by residents in need of treatment.

All this points to the perennial contradiction in conservatism that plagues our discourse: Cut now, pay later. (So much for personal responsibility!)

New York State, where I am a social worker, has come up with a smart and humane approach to these systemic and complicated problems that Louisiana would do well to ponder.

Yes, New York has closed in-patient mental health units in the past few decades. But as beds were closed the state wisely decided to reinvest the money in community mental health and substance-abuse programs, creating a diverse continuum of care for the most vulnerable New Yorkers. The system is not perfect but it is has been moving in the right direction for some time.

As part of that continuum, the state and the city have been investing in supportive housing. A cost-effective solution to end homelessness, it gives people with drug addictions and serious mental illnesses a chance to recover in a safe residential environment. For many, it is nothing less than a life-saver, a second chance.

The “support” part of supportive housing resides in the on-site services provided by case managers. Supportive housing is an evidence-based practice that is universally acknowledged to rebuild lives. Very simply, it works, and New York State now has over 40,000 units of permanent, affordable supportive housing.

landmark study of supportive housing from the early part of the last decade speaks volumes: it costs between $120,000 and $600,000 to lock someone in prison for a year, $183,000 to hold someone in an in-patient unit for a year, $23,000 to $32,000 to maintain someone in a shelter for a year and — get ready — only $12,500 to provide someone a permanent place to live! Other studies have only reinforced the earlier research, usually referred to as the Culhane Report, after team leader Dennis Culhane.

New Orleans would benefit greatly from investing in this proven, compassionate method.

Mike Golub, a resident of Brooklyn, NY, is a social worker with the Center for Urban Community Services.