As legislative fix to budget hole awaits, so do the most vulnerable

OKLAHOMA CITY — As the special session grinds into its fifth week to address the state’s budget hole, watching intently from outside the walls of 23rd and Lincoln are some of the state’s most vulnerable.

“I pray every day that this will be worked out, and that our services won’t be drastically cut where people will be considering that they have nothing left to live for,” said Candi Wilson, a client of HOPE Community Services, an outpatient mental health and substance abuse facility on the city’s south side.

“Oklahoma is the heartland, and where is the heart if that happens?”

Wilson, 58, is just one of thousands of people who use HOPE’s services. Services that are in threat of being cut if the legislature can’t find the money to plug a $215 million hole opened up by the state supreme court this past summer, ruling a cigarette fee unconstitutional.

“Haven’t heard exactly about what percentage level cuts would be handed down, because everyday is a different day at our capitol right now,” said Jeanette Moore, HOPE’s executive director.

As it stands, if agencies like the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services are cut of funding, Moore estimates she will lose 113 of her 143 staff, 4,400 people will lose case management services, along with therapy and housing assistance programs.

“Individuals are calling, asking, ‘are you till open?’” Moore said.

“So people are calling, asking?”

“They’re concerned whether our doors are even open.”

Both the house and senate have approved different bills authorizing the use of $23.3 million of rainy day funds for mental health services — just a portion of what is needed.

Senate leadership said late Tuesday the senate is prepared to take up a house bill Wednesday, appropriating the rainy day funds.

However, weeks in, a long-term solution to the budget hole remains elusive.

As the political jockeying continues, so do the concerns for Wilson and what could happen to HOPE if it's forced to curtail the help she receives.

“They are what strives me to do better, to get me to where I need to be,” she said while waiting to meet with her therapist.

A therapist, case manager and other programs that help keep Wilson on the straight and narrow. She’s a recovering addict and currently in mental health court in Oklahoma County to avoid going to prison.

“I don’t know what I would do without my team,” Wilson said.

“Without them, myself personally, if I can’t have those services, I don’t want to be here, because I’m going to lose so much.”