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Growing Homeless Population In Santa Rosa Putting Strain On Emergency Rooms

SANTA ROSA (KPIX 5) -- There's no doubt that Sonoma County has seen its share of trauma. With two massive wildfires, skyrocketing housing costs and, now, a growing homeless problem, some people are reaching their breaking point. When they do, many of them end up in hospital emergency rooms.

With a growing number of people living on the streets, mental illness is increasing as well. And in some areas, hospitals are being overrun.

Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital's Emergency Department has become a place of refuge for mentally ill people experiencing psychiatric crises.

"Any given day we see around six psychiatric patients," said Scott Rocco, Emergency Department Manager at Memorial. "The length of stay for those patients compared to a regular emergency department patient is days versus hours."

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That puts a huge strain on emergency rooms, often leaving injured patients waiting on gurneys and stacked up in hallways. And the hospital says it is not equipped to care for someone suffering a psychiatric episode anyway.

"This is not the appropriate place to treat those mental health patients," said Dan Schurman, the hospital's Community Health Investment Manager. "They need a different kind of care, but those resources don't exist."

But that may change, because three local hospitals--Santa Rosa Memorial, Kaiser Permanente and Sutter Health Medical Center--are donating a combined $700,000 to help create a new county-run mental health center.

County health managers say the 16-bed facility would give hospitals a place to send people suffering mental trauma, leaving more room for those with physical injuries.

"It's a 24-hour facility and it's designed to help support individuals within the community to stabilize in their psychiatric crisis or challenge," said county Health Services Director Barbie Robinson.

And because it would be a dedicated mental health facility, it would qualify for federally-subsidized MediCal funding. Currently, Sonoma County foots the entire bill for treating mentally ill patients at its emergency rooms. With such a growing burden, the county and the hospitals consider their contributions to be a wise investment for the future.

"So we'd have a place to discharge those folks, so they wouldn't be backing up in our hospital," said Schurman. "Doesn't sound like a lot, but it would make an impact."

The new mental health center is currently planned to be located on the site of a former convalescent hospital in Sebastopol and county health officials hope to have it up and running by the end of 2020.

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