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NOPD continues to struggle with EDPs

By The Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — Authorities here say they're still having a horrendous time dealing with the mentally ill, more than two years after Hurricane Katrina washed away a massive mental hospital that has yet to be replaced.

Earlier this month, a woman who police said had been living in her car and showed signs of losing touch with reality walked into a vocational college classroom and began firing.

Latina Williams bought a .357 revolver and box of ammunition from a New Orleans pawn shop, investigators say. She then went to Louisiana Technical College in Baton Rouge, walked into a classroom, killed two women, reloaded and then killed herself.

Two weeks earlier, a man described by New Orleans police as a mentally ill vagrant allegedly wrestled a gun from a police officer and shot her to death.

The suspect's family said he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic with violent tendencies when he was 19. Homeless and bounced around mental facilities, he's now at Orleans Parish Prison.

He has plenty of company there.

In post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, where hospitals are still not operating at capacity, the prison's 60 psychiatric beds make it the largest acute-care psychiatric facility in the city. One full-time psychiatrist and two part-timers treat patients, said prison spokeswoman Renee Lapeyrolerie.

The LSU Medical Center has 29 acute care beds, and plans to increase that to 40, said Dr. Mark Townsend, vice chairman at the LSU Health Science Department of Psychiatry.

''We're having a very hard time finding nurses and clinical social workers to staff additional beds,'' Townsend said.

Although funds to help provide mental health facilities have been promised by the state, Townsend said he has not seen any sign of them so far.

The police have had a tough time dealing with the mentally ill since Charity Hospital suffered severe flood damage from Hurricane Katrina. The massive hospital had 300 beds for mental patients, a place they could be assessed, treated, monitored and kept safe, police say.

With that facility closed, police spend time taking people with serious mental problems to hospital emergency rooms.

''It's a bad situation for everyone,'' said Cecil Tebo, administrator of the police department's crisis unit. ''There aren't beds for people and hospitals are discharging them before people are stable enough to live in the community.''

Calls to deal with people who are homicidal, suicidal or gravely disabled are increasing by about 10 calls a month, Tebo said. And more calls are bringing in familiar faces. Officers say they are picking up people with serious mental problems time after time because there is no place for them to get treatment.

The problems are compounded when the person is homeless, said Maj. Michael Glasser, president of the Police Association of New Orleans.

''If you have someone with a mental problem and they don't have a place to stay they don't get help,'' Glasser said. ''So we have to deal with them when we come across them.''

The homeless population has doubled in New Orleans since Katrina, with about 12,000 people now believed to be homeless.

''To me, the problems with homelessness and mental health is something that keeps coming up,'' said Baty Landis, co-founder of the citizens group Silence is Violence. ''We are really not dealing with either problem and it's only getting worse.''

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