Clinging to hope and home

The Murdock family -- mom Kathi, dad Michael, and daughter Paige -- in front of their North Merced home. (Bea Ahbeck/ Sun-Star)

Elected and appointed officials said the psychological trauma spawned by home foreclosures in Merced County poses a serious challenge, but that recent cuts to state mental health funding makes treatment hard to get.

Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani (D-Livingston), who represents Merced County, said she planned to call State Sen. Leader Darryl Steinberg Friday afternoon to ask if any emergency funds are available to help homeowners struggling with mental health problems.

She plans to ask Steinberg "if there is an emergency fund so that we can do something in the near term to have enough counselors available," Galgiani said.

She also urged residents struggling with stress, anxiety and depression to reach out for help:

"There's a stigma about reaching out and asking for help. There shouldn't be." She added. "I think that in Merced County, we're in depression, people are hurting, people should not be ashamed."

The Sun-Star asked Galgiani and other elected and appointed officials to talk about possible solutions to the mental health crisis outlined in the series "Houses of Blues" that appeared in the newspaper Friday and today.

"I told HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan about that — foreclosure and mental health, about suicide and depression," Congressman Dennis Cardoza (D-Merced) said Friday night. "I told him about baby dolls left out in the bushes as families rush to leave. I told him that it doesn't matter if the baby doll was put there by a hurricane or the foreclosure man. Your child's baby doll is still out on the sidewalk."

Cardoza said he's so upset with the lack of economic help to stem the housing crisis here that he has taken the "unusual step" among D.C. bureaucrats of becoming extremely outspoken.

"When I come back home and meet with my constituents, I can see the stress they're under," he said. "I look in their eyes and I see what they're feeling. And I know how hard it is for them."

As more residents seek help because they're losing their homes, Merced County — with the highest foreclosure rate in the state — lost $1.1 million in state mental health funds last year. It is braced for more cuts in coming months.

Some elected officials warned that increased state aid is unlikely.

"I think the most important thing that we can do is pass national health insurance reform, which provides health insurance for all Americans," said the chairman of the state Assembly Health Committee, Dave Jones, D-Sacramento.

He said that "it would be a big mistake" to make further cuts in state mental health funds for counties. "The problem is that without the voters' willingness to support new revenues, the state doesn't have the resources to expand."

Manuel Jimenez is director of Merced County Department of Mental Health. (Bea Ahbeck/ Sun-Star)

Merced County's mental health chief said Friday that he knows exactly what he needs most to help homeowners cope with the stresses of foreclosure. "Staffing. Just having the staff to provide services," said Manuel Jimenez, director of a mental health department attempting to counsel a growing number of depressed and anxious patients in a county with the highest foreclosure rate in California.

Like other counties, however, Merced County has suffered severe cuts in mental health funding. Jimenez said that after losing nine counselors to budget cuts, his remaining counselors are seeing more patients, a tough job in the best of circumstances.

"Imagine coming in at 8 a.m. and hearing people's terrible stories, and an hour after that you're hearing more terrible stories, and an hour after that, someone else's woes," Jimenez said.

"We just need a reliable source of funding that's consistent and constant. I don't know where you get it. What's the word — Utopia? — someplace where it's all nice and fair."

Some said that affected homeowners are trapped by two types of stigmas — that of financial distress and losing their homes, and that of suffering mental health problems.

That means residents often struggle in isolation, rather than having the community rally around them, said Elizabeth Morrison, clinical director of behavioral health services at Golden Valley Health Center.

"We really haven't seen a response as a community to a community. I think because it's like foreclosure: it's long and its drawn out. Nobody knew how bad it was going to be or how bad it is going to get," Morrison said. Merced County Supervisor Hub Walsh said the problem is nearly out of local leaders' hands.

"We have concern that so much mental health funding is tied to the state — and that funding is in turn tied to the state economy," Walsh said. "It is my experience that during tough economic times, stressors increase."

He's also the county's representative to the California State Association of Counties, the main county government lobby in the state, and Walsh said Merced will be advocating for mental health funding at the state level generally, but not specifically about foreclosures.

"There were still needs in mental health services before, and every service they can provide, renew, will make a difference for the community as a whole," he said. "When the state starts looking for cuts, mental health should be spared. It has taken its share of cuts already."

Merced Mayor Bill Spriggs said mental health programs were often targeted by the budget-slicing pens of state leaders.

"There are probably never enough mental health services," he said. "When budgets get tight, unfortunately mental health typically does not rise to the top of the list."

While the city doesn't provide mental health services — that falls to the county government — Spriggs said the lack of services available nevertheless affects city budgets and services like police, for example.

Both leaders said addressing the sources of a poor economy would help improve mental health tied to foreclosure issues here.

"We need to attack the cause, and the cause is unemployment. We need to redouble our efforts to attract business" Spriggs said. "We've been working aggressively, very aggressively, to get the high-speed rail maintenance facility. That's 1,500 jobs." Walsh said leaders should focus on keeping small businesses afloat and flush with local workers. He added that a little camaraderie could also go a long way.

"I would encourage all of us to find a confidant, find a person we can share these stressful feelings with," Walsh said. "It's healthy, they may be able to help you or steer you toward a new resource you didn't know about. We need to remind people that it is not helpful to keep these things locked away."

Paige Murdock sits with her grandmother Billie Vanover in their Merced home. (Bea Ahbeck/ Sun-Star)

Some community leaders wondered how, in the face of state budget cuts, the Merced community could rally to help its own. Jimenez said that his father used to tell him about how, in the poor community of Shafter, Texas, residents would rally to build a church: " So someone who had a few two-by-fours would bring them, someone brought a hammer, someone brought some nails."

That could hold some lessons for Merced, Jimenez said: "Everyone needs to reach in, grab a little of what they can and help out a little bit."

Others agreed.

"We need to be able to say this is a shared issue and ask what resources can I bring to help. It might be a spiritual resource, with a support system like a church that's really solid," said Pastor Jay Pierce at the United Methodist Church of Merced.

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