Cities Lobby Congress on Substance Use, Mental Health and Homelessness

Every day cities, towns, and villages across the country face challenges posed by mental illness, substance use disorder and homelessness. An effective response by municipal leaders requires a comprehensive, multi-sector approach.

On Wednesday, October 30, the National League of Cities held a briefing on Capitol Hill so that local leaders could tell Congress what they need, loud and clear:

  • a stronger federal-local partnership,
  • more funds to make their way to the local level, and
  • flexibility for braiding and blending funding streams.

To address the intersection of mental health, homelessness and substance use, local leaders need a partner in the federal government.

NLC president mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson of Gary, IN was joined by Mayor Steve Williams of Huntington, West Virginia, Mayor Jeff Longwell of Wichita, Kansas and Councilmember Ana Sandoval of San Antonio, Texas.

Each shared innovations and best practices from their communities, all of are highlighted in NLC’s newest issue brief, written in collaboration with Arnold Ventures and The George Washington University.

“Arresting people is not the solution. Our jails are filling up with people who have mental health issues and substance abuse issues,” said Mayor of Wichita Jeff Longwell. “At any given time we’ve had about 1,500 people in our local jail facility. About 75% of those individuals have substance abuse issues and between 30 to 35% have mental health issues. Arresting them is not fixing the issue.”

“Five years ago, when I got involved, we really had no infrastructure in place. The biggest problem we had is that we had always thought it was a law enforcement problem,” said Mayor of Huntington Steve Williams. “We didn’t even know what we didn’t know. We didn’t even know what was present. We didn’t know how many overdoses we had in the last month. In developing that real-time data, we were able then to immediately put a plan in place.”

These city leaders met directly with several senators who serve on the Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee, asking them to champion an important issue: ensuring that State Opioid Response (STR) Grants make it down to the local level. STR Grants are administered through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration and these funds are largely being held-up at the state level. NLC has been actively lobbying Congress to address this issue. Meetings were held with Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS) and staff for Senator Roy Blunt (R-MS) on the appropriations committee.

“With the addiction problems that we are having—not just opioids, but all addictions—cities are on the front lines,” said Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV). “You’ve got to speak up to your senators, to your congresspeople, your representatives and let them know what’s important. We have the best intentions to give you the tools. You know best. Make sure you tell us what’s not working.”

For more information and to get more actively involved in NLC’s lobbying issues in Washington, we welcome members to join our Federal Advocacy Committee meetings at City Summit in San Antonio on Wednesday, November 20th from 3-5 PM.

About the Author: Stephanie Martinez-Ruckman is the Legislative Director for Human Development at the National League of Cities. Follow Stephanie on Twitter @martinezruckman.