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Mentally ill need help of region

Portland Mayor Tom Potter's plan to convene a panel to consider ways to better serve the region's mentally ill and address homelessness is leadership worth supporting.

Potter suggested the idea of commissioning the group a week ago as justice officials were trying to sort out why James Chasse Jr., a mentally ill man, died in a struggle with Portland police officers in Northwest Portland.

This death was extremely unfortunate. But it would be equally unfortunate if the community failed to address growing problems related to mental illness and the homeless.

Potter recognizes that these are problems without jurisdictional boundaries. The impacts of mental illness and the homeless are spreading across the region. Problems associated with both are felt not only in downtown Portland - where street people are highly visible - but also in Gresham and in numerous other districts and suburbs.

For Potter's commission on the mentally ill to be effective, it should include representatives from East Multnomah County and Clackamas and Washington counties. The effort also should include business, hospital, civic, non-profit and religious community representatives.

Why should average metro-area residents care about the mentally ill? Local health-care officials estimate that one out of every five families has a member dealing with some form of mental illness, including depression, addiction, anger management and schizophrenia. In Multnomah County alone, there are an estimated 4,000 homeless people living under bridges and on streets, sidewalks and alleys.

Homelessness and mental illness are often connected. Due to changing state laws that went into effect beginning a few decades ago, the mentally ill are no longer detained in state institutions but allowed to live in their community - oftentimes without needed treatment services or support systems, including housing.

Finding allies to work on this matter should be no problem for Potter. County sheriffs should head the list of those willing to help. In Multnomah County, up to 30 percent of the jail population is made up of people who've been diagnosed with mental illness.

The first goal of Potter's commission should be to build an understanding of problems related to the mentally ill and homeless. And then it should consider and advise solutions. We strongly urge the mayor and other leaders to make this effort an immediate priority.

No one wants another tragedy.