This article was contributed by San Benito County Behavioral Health.
Hollister is a community where everyone somehow knows each other. Some of the people we can recognize by driving through town are neighbors, coworkers, family and friends. Once in a while, you become familiar with the local residents who may be under the influence, and a bit distracting on the side of the road. It can be hard to imagine how someone like that can recover from being in such a terrible situation. However, one of these people who came to be known for her singing in the street, looking disheveled, being homeless and walking around town with a balloon has proven that recovery is possible.
When I interviewed Irene, I was able to see the joy in her eyes when discussing how her life has changed. Irene told me that she had been in and out of jail for 19 years, and was homeless most of that time. Relationships with her family had deteriorated in part because of her mental health issues and drug use which led her deeper down the rabbit hole.
Irene was known to be a staple in the homeless community of Hollister. The Hollister Police Department and San Benito County Sheriff’s Office had become all too familiar through their interactions with her over the years, and Irene became very familiar with them as well. Irene recalls that although she had respect for police, she knew she was often in jail for “the stupidest things” as she puts it, and she always felt as if she was being targeted because she was homeless. What she understands now is that the police were simply doing their job in making sure the community felt safe, and to ensure that she was in a state of mind where she can care for herself.
Irene mentioned that she never thought she would be homeless and wasn’t ready to acknowledge her mental health symptoms or that she had a substance use disorder. Irene felt that she had control of her drug use. When she realized that her drug use was not under control, many of her relationships with friends and family had already been broken, and they seemed beyond repair.
Irene also mentioned that when she was homeless, she often felt it wasn’t safe to sleep in the streets, so she thought that using drugs to stay awake was her only choice in order to be safe. On many nights, Irene would ask God, “What did I do to deserve being out here?” and would ask God to be given the strength to make it each day. Looking back, Irene says she doesn’t know how she survived for so long out in the streets.
In May of 2019, Irene was once again arrested in the streets of Hollister. This arrest would turn out to be different than the many prior. At the time of her last arrest, San Benito County Behavioral Health was launching a new program named the Behavioral Health-Diversion and Reentry Court (BH-DRC) program. The BH-DRC program serves individuals that are 18 years or older who have been arrested, charged, or convicted of a crime and have a mental health issues. A court defendant or jail inmate meeting the criteria for participation in the BH-DRC program will be referred, and if eligible, will choose to be voluntarily enrolled in the program instead of serving time in jail.
At the time of Irene’s incarceration, the new program was explained to her and she quickly accepted the offer. It was explained that by enrolling into BH-DRC, she would be linked right away with various services like immediate access to Behavioral Health staff including clinicians, substance abuse counselors and case managers, and assistance in enrolling in Medi-Cal to ensure all of her physical health needs were met. As part of the requirement to avoid incarceration, Irene had to agree to remain compliant with her psychiatric medications, show up for daily drug testing, and maintain constant communication with case managers, substance use counselors, and probation staff.
Behavioral Health staff worked very hard with Irene and her family to re-establish their relationship. It took a lot of effort to be willing to work together in order to offer Irene the support she needed in order to be successful. Irene says “I am very thankful for my sister for letting me stay with her. I don’t want to let them (sister and parents) down because they’ve been there for me.” Irene has gained a lot of insight into her mental health issues and has become more aware and sensitive of what her immediate family has been through for years dealing with her illness. Acknowledging the heartache she has put on her family, and her willingness to not let that happen again has kept her motivated to be successful.
Irene is now over a year sober and has stabilized her mental illness. She states that she will make sure that she doesn’t fall back to where she was. “I am very thankful for where I’m at right now and the opportunity that they gave me, the mental health, and getting me out.” Now that she is stable, sober, and receiving help, Irene likes to stay active by cleaning and cooking, and trying to be as helpful as possible while staying at her sister’s house. With Behavioral Health staff’s support, Irene was able to enroll and complete college classes to provide her with computer and writing skills that will improve her opportunities to obtain employment. Behavioral Health staff also supported Irene to advocate for herself with the Department of Motor Vehicles to reinstate her drivers license after it has been suspended for several years.
The impact of her recovery has been noticeable in the community and in the San Benito County Sheriff’s Office. Sergeant Iler states “It is amazing to see the progress Irene has made. I have been working for the county since 1992 and I remember my first contacts with Irene as far back as the early 2000s. I have seen her out of control, dancing in traffic yelling and flipping off motorists as they drive by. I have also seen her intoxicated and under the influence strapped to a gurney being transported to the hospital by AMR. The process she has made over the past months is literally unbelievable. She came into the courthouse sometime in February and greeted me by saying ‘good morning Sergeant how is your morning going’ I thought who is this person and where is Irene! Irene you have come a long way, keep up the good work.”
Captain Eric Taylor also had some thoughts about Irene’s progress. Captain Taylor states “I have not been in this county long, yet have had many dealings with Irene. I always saw her as a lost soul. She was always kind and courteous but also always in crisis. I felt there was someone trapped inside who needed someone to care. I am so grateful Irene had the opportunity to lift herself up and conquer her ailments. We will all be better off with her kind, bright personality as a part of our community. I am also thankful for our Behavioral Health staff who were able to guide Irene to success.”
Irene’s story is inspirational and proof that when services are geared to help those most in need, even the toughest cases can be improved. The staff at the Behavioral Health department is beyond proud of Irene and her success, as well as of the partnerships and the staff that has helped Irene along the way. We are confident Irene will continue to lead a sober and healthy life, and wish her a lifetime of success.
For more information on BH-DRC or Behavioral Health Services, you can visit our website https://www.cosb.us/county-departments/health. You can also call us at (831) 636-4020, or visit our office located at 1131 San Felipe Rd, Hollister, CA 95023.