House Representative Leslie Herod (D-District 8) is asking for the public’s help to address the Mile High City’s dearth of mental health and addiction services. “I see how much the community is hurting. I see our alarming rates of suicide…There are three to four overdoses on the streets of Denver every day,” she says. “We need more help, and we don’t have it right now.”
Herod is the driving force behind Caring 4 Denver, aka Initiated Ordinance 301 on the Denver municipal ballot. The initiative proposes a 0.25 percent increase to the sales and use tax (25 cents on a $100 purchase) to fund mental health services, facilities, and programs for children and adults; suicide prevention programs; opioid and substance abuse prevention, treatment, and recovery programs; housing; and first-responder training.
If passed, 301 will generate an estimated $45 million annually. The money will be available to anybody who provides mental health- and addiction-related services to Denver residents, through the Caring 4 Denver Foundation, which will be run by a 13-member board.
“We have a mental health crisis in America today, and Denver is not immune to that,” says Mayor Michael Hancock, who is supporting 301. “We are certainly seeing an increase in challenges as a result of people going untreated in our community; without the proper mental health safety net, or infrastructure of a safety net, many folks are in and out of our detention facilities, in and out of our emergency rooms, on our sidewalks. Caring 4 Denver will help us at least have the resources to begin developing a more assertive, progressive framework in the city of Denver. This is an initiative I believe is critically important.”
Currently, the Mile High City doesn’t have the money or the capacity to meet the community’s needs. According to Dr. Carl Clark, president and CEO of the Mental Health Center of Denver (MHCD), one in five people are dealing with a mental health or addiction issue on a daily basis, and one in four will face one over the course of the year. But, he adds, “only two out of five people are actually getting the help they need.” In part, that’s because they don’t know where to go or how to find a provider, or there aren’t any services nearby that they can access.
Herod has seen firsthand what a lack of available services can do. Her sister has been “in and out of the criminal justice system for at least 20 years, and a lot of it has been around mental health and substance abuse challenges,” she says. “She never got adequate care. That means she never really had a shot each time to get out of the system. We have to do better.”
To Herod and to Clark, doing better means having a therapist in every school, providing innovative programming, and building facilities that provide respite, detox, and access to resources. (The closing of Arapahoe House at the start of the year left a major provider gap for the city.) It also means doubling down on efforts that are already seeing positive results around the city. For example, with the passing of 301, a co-responder program, which pairs law enforcement with behavioral health specialists on mental health-related calls, could expand from two to all seven police districts. “In the past, most of the folks in that situation wound up going to jail, and now only seven percent go to jail, and the other folks are connecting with treatment,” Clark says.
For Adam Lerner, director and chief animator of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, Caring 4 Denver is as an opportunity to get the creative community—which is 25 percent more likely to experience mental health issues—more involved with behavioral health efforts. He was among the first people to sign onto the ballot measure. “We’re at this moment in the city where we’re prospering so much, and we can be gleeful about that progress, but we should take the opportunity to say, ‘Who, for various reasons, is not able to participate in that prosperity? Who’s not thriving right now?'” he says. “I felt like the museum could really get behind a measure [Caring 4 Denver] that will change how this city relates to and treats issues of mental health, substance abuse, and suicide.”
The death of a friend and colleague, Colin Ward, by suicide earlier this year (Ward, a local creative and DIY advocate, was just 27 years old) brought the issue to the forefront for Lerner. “He was an incredibly energetic and creative soul… I felt very affected by his passing. I wanted to do something—to take some positive step,” Lerner says.
Caring 4 Denver is one of four sales tax increases being proposed this year, and there is no organized opposition to the measure, though some voters have raised concerns about whether a sales tax increase is really necessary.
“[A sales tax] is the most flexible mechanism. We needed to have a really flexible funding stream, so we can get funding out into the community in the way that we need it and we can be responsive to the community’s needs,” says Herod in response.
Caring 4 Denver is, in part, inspired by the Mental Illness and Drug Dependency sales tax in King County, which encompasses Seattle and adds about $67 million to the county’s coffers every year. “Having a dedicated funding stream is essential to bring all the players together and ensure we have a structure of support,” Herod says.
Clark agrees: “My entire budget is $100 million. We’re talking about adding $45 million into Denver a year. That is a game changer.”
VOTE: Wherever you stand on this—and any other—issue, it’s important to take the time to vote. Election Day is Tuesday, November 6. Denver County voters can find everything they need to know here. The 2018 Ballot Information Booklets (commonly known as Blue Books) are being mailed out, but if you haven’t received yours, they’re also available in English and in Spanish here.