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Untreated mental illness is rampant in Florida jails, while mental health funding is almost the lowest in the nation

Arresting situations

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"Florida's level of support for the mentally ill is unfortunate," he says. "There are tremendous social, health and physical costs to letting this issue go unaddressed. Providing mental health services will reduce issues of poverty, homelessness and incarceration and help them become contributing members of society."

That hasn't been proven wrong in Orange County so far.

According to a study by the Orange County Corrections Department on homelessness and arrests, 42 percent of the 4,161 homeless people arrested in the area in 2014 suffered from some type of mental illness.

The study makes note of the vicious cycle of homelessness, mental health and imprisonment, too, noting that 91 percent of homeless inmates had prior arrests. And they weren't very likely to improve, either, the study states.

"Unfortunately, there are not many resources available upon release to help these individuals successfully reintegrate back into society," it reads. "The majority of homeless individuals that are released end up living on the streets again and committing crimes that will get them back into our facilities."

The mood of the Pathways Drop-in Center is tranquil and laid-back, a series of rooms decorated in pastel-colored bricks and tile, with a piano in the lobby and a kitchen where a dedicated staff cooks for the residents. There are couches where those who frequent the house can sleep, outside porch areas adorned with lunch tables where they can smoke and talk, computers where they can check email and use the internet, and TVs they can watch.

Some people play cards in the living room. Others lounge on couches outside in the Florida afternoon sun, on a covered patio providing much-needed shade.

The house serves as a support system for the homeless and the mentally ill. It is run solely by people who also suffer from mental illness, who know the struggle, and it's funded by money from Orange County and from charities and nonprofits such as the Chatlos Foundation, as well as money from the National Alliance on Mental Illness Greater Orlando, according to Pathways president J. Nelson Kull.

Many of those who stay at Pathways have seen the inside of the Orange County Jail. From their points of view, the jail's treatment of people like them is nothing but frustrating and frightening.

Keelan Murrell, 60, suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. He was in jail in the 1990s for a trespassing charge and, due to his illness, says he felt suicidal in jail for the 30 days he was inside. He says the people in charge of mental health there didn't seem terribly invested in the job – either that, or they were simply "not the right people for the job."

He describes an incident in which he said he had a strong negative reaction to a medication given to him at the jail.

"It made my throat swell up," he says. "I couldn't breathe. It was painful. But they didn't believe me – they didn't listen to me. They gave me another dose of the same stuff and refused to give me what I needed."

Murrell has been homeless for years and has numerous past arrests for charges of burglary, criminal mischief, trespassing, resisting arrest and battery, according to the Orange County Clerk of Courts files.

In one incident from 2016, Murrell was arrested for throwing a rock at a random car window as it was coming off a highway ramp.

Now he says he's living on an assisted income check and has received assistance from the Lakeside Behavioral Health Center in the past, but wants to get his own job and fend for himself.

"I don't want that [check]," he says. "I want a regular, legal job."

Unfortunately, he has yet to make that happen for himself.

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