Every County Needs A John Cook To Fight For Housing And Mental Illness Reforms

(10-31-17) It was a crisp fall morning on a recent Saturday when Pathway Homes held its annual Help The Homeless 5 K Walk here in Fairfax County. Patti and I decided to join our daughter, Traci and her husband Dan, at the walk.

Traci is a clinical social worker for Pathway, which provides non-time-limited housing and supportive services to nearly 600 adults with serious mental illness and other co-occurring disabilities in Northern Virginia.

One of the first persons who I spotted at the walk was Board of Supervisor John C. Cook, who chairs our county’s Public Safety Committee. He gave a short pep talk about the importance of supportive housing in a county that has the highest cost of renting and homeownership in the entire state. You need an annual income of $58,320 to afford a two-bedroom fair-market rental here. Little wonder that despite Pathway’s  best efforts there were 1,059 homeless residents counted in our county last year. 

Cook spoke eloquently about the importance of supportive housing and also discussed relatively recent jail diversion efforts underway for seriously mentally ill residents who commit minor crimes, such as trespassing. He recited the statistics with ease without staff prepared notes because housing and mental illness are subjects, about which, he cares passionately.

It can cost as much as $72,000 annually to keep an individual with a serious mental illness in our local detention center. Treating that same individual in a state hospital cost $22,500 annually. Providing them with treatment services in our community – the sort that Pathway provides – costs $7,500 and allows them to live in a neighborhood with friends and family.

Meanwhile, our country’s Diversion First program has kept 96 individuals from being arrested during the first three months of this year. It was copied largely after the restoration diversion project in Bexar County, Texas, considered the nation’s gold standard.

Ironically,  I had spoken the day before in San Antonio (Bexar County) and I grinned hearing Supervisor Cook speak because he was saying much the same thing that I’d said.

I first met Cook several years ago through Lindsey Smith, a member of a church that I was attending with my parents. Smith arranged for me to give Cook a copy of my book, CRAZY: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, and he actually took time to read it. I had been struggling without success to convince a chief judge here to create a mental health court and had not even been allowed through his chamber door.

Thanks to Supervisor Cook attitudes began to change.

Tomorrow night, 11-1-17, a Wednesday, Supervisor Cook will be chairing a public safety meeting at 7:30 p.m. at the Whitman Middle School Lecture Hall in Alexandria, to discuss the county’s progress in implementing recommendations made by a Police Reform Ad Hoc Commission that I served on.

It took a lot of political guts to create that much needed public commission.  Cook, along with Board of Supervisor Chairman Sharon Bulova, were the driving forces behind it, even though they were from different political parties. The commission was formed after a Fairfax police officer fatally shot a man standing in the doorway of his home and the death of a mentally ill prisoner in our local jail. No police officer had ever been charged in a shooting prior to that event. Much to their credit, Bulova and Cook pushed for police reform. Some have happened quickly. Others, such as body cameras, haven’t. But progress is being made.

Pathway President and CEO Dr. Sylisa Lambert-Woodard noted when she introduced Cook at the walk that it was rare for her to attend any sort of housing event where he wasn’t in attendance. She wondered how  he managed to keep his private law practice open because he spent so much time at mental health and housing meetings.

Several times during his brief remarks, he mentioned how reforms being implemented now in Fairfax should have been done much, much earlier. Given most politicians eagerness to brag about their accomplishments, I felt that admission about lost opportunities was insightful.  It shows a self-effacing quality and desire to always do things better.

I actually don’t live in the Braddock district that Supervisor Cook serves and can’t vote for him. But I am a beneficiary of his work as a champion for those who are rarely heard and seen.

I hope you have a John Cook in your community.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.