William Denihan: Agency Turn Around Expert

By Michael McGraw

William Denihan is the current Chief Executive Officer for the Alcohol and Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board of Cuyahoga County (ADAMHS).  He managed the merger of the Drug Board with the Mental Health Board.  He was Safety Director and Police Chief during the Michael White administration and took control of the County Department of Children and Family Services when they were struggling.   He has announced his retirement after this year, and the Street Chronicle wanted to interview him before his retirement. 

Mike McGraw: Mr Denihan, thanks for being with us. As I said, I write about issues of concern of poverty and homelessness for the Street Chronicle.  What is your opinion of having a separate shelter for severely mentally ill people where they can get the care they deserve and are not exploited by other residents of the shelter.  This is the position of NEOCH staff and board.   Does that sound familiar at all, and is there any update you could give us of the conversation of making something like that happen in northeast Ohio?

William Denihan: OK, so we're talking about Brian Davis, who's the head of the Northeast Ohio Homeless Coalition. I had several conversations with him, so let me make a clarification. That we try to work on a situation where the homeless people, specifically the mentally ill people, are in the least restrictive setting. There's a law to that effect. We strive to get them in the least restrictive setting. It has to do with the de-institutionalization that was begun under President Kennedy. And that deinstitutionalization is when they look at least restrictive environments. And that is in the community with other people. And that's the way it should be. And I don't think we ever engaged in any philosophical conversation as to what he believes in and what I believe in. I believe that, to me, that’s the law, and so I act accordingly. And respecting Brian Davis, I think we would act accordingly also. So I think I answered that first part. They should be in the least restrictive environment.

MM: Another area that I think we were interested in, I saw you on a local TV clip about the time that Consumer Protection Association folded down, six months or a year ago. Do you have any interest in having persons on the payee system, having the payee system be reformed so that maybe they would set aside money for housing or for basic material needs for persons that are intellectually or physically unable to make those decisions for themselves?

WD: Well, boy that's a broad-brushed call. Let me do one thing at a time. The payee system is a system that's taking their money, holding it and giving it to them. And since we're talking about their money, it would have to be a movement that came from them, not from us. And they could form their own association, and say we want this many nickels taken out of every check. But it should not be orchestrated by us. I don’t believe that that's appropriate, unless they ask us, as a group.

MM. They as a group, so who would constitute, how would they group…

WD: Boy, that's another good question. As a group that has the money that they're willing to give up. I don't believe it's a unique situation, I do not believe we should assume that we do that. And the only way that would work is if that's what they want and how their money spent.

MM: OK, my only other question was as to persons with homelessness, if detoxification is an urgent need, are we anywhere near the resources we would need to have locally, to have detoxification on demand for anyone in the community?

WD: Well, that's a great question coming right now, today. When we're realizing that we're more than doubling the number of deaths from the heroin tsunami that's going on right now. And when you look at the number of deaths, and you realize that our capacity of available beds is far below what is necessary to do a good job. So, we see that with the requests for detox immediately that folks are told they have to come back. And those are the worst words to have to tell an addict that has made up their mind that they need help -- that's we're not here to help. And that's a horrible thing to say, that's not what an addict needs to hear. An addict needs to hear the same thing someone with a broken arms hears -- stay right here I'll take care of you. Not come back in two weeks. That's wrong. And that's wrong, because we have the capacity to help them heal physically, and some could argue that there's some physicality to the disease of drugs, and that to tell a person you have to wait and come back is the worst thing for them to hear. So, believe my job now is to fix the hole in the ship. And there's a hole in the ship where some firms are having to tell people a bed day available. And that's what my job should be, so that's what I'm doing.

MM: Is there anything else you'd like to add on the subject of mental health and mental illness particularly as it would affect persons experiencing homelessness or precariousness in terms of the housing situation.

WD: Well, homelessness is a very special subject of mine. I've been around this as long as Brian Davis has. I remember meeting him back in the early 1990s when he graduated from Case. I was so impressed with him I was downtown on a Sunday afternoon, around 17th and Superior and he and a couple of his friends were cleaning up the sidewalk where the men during the week and had been throwing their cigarette butts. Not telling anyone, not using it, that was how he was spending his Sunday afternoon. And gave me a whole different viewpoint of Brian Davis. He's a legitimate good leader and I respect him. And I can't do everything we wants me to do I wish I could, but I can't because I don't have the resources to do it. I live like you live in a society here that says we're only going to spend this amount of money for the least of us. And I disagree with that. So if we find ways to give money to make things work, we'll do it. For example, the women's shelter needs roof repair. I think we'll end up donating money to Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries who runs it to help sustain the building. Well my sense is we'll do that every year, so why not put money aside and take the building down and build a brand new building. That's where my thinking is. But there's always an urgency to fill a hole in something that take your mind of the bigger prize.

MM: Yes, I think that's a very quotable statement that I think would related to a lot of problems we have in society, don't you think? I agree with that.

WD: So, one of the things that was asked of me was, would I bring a brand new homeless shelter. And I would love to do that. But I would first love to build an environment that didn't require a homeless shelter. So I think it's a two-edged sword. To have a better facility for a temporary arrangement for those who don't have housing? Yes, I would like to have the best. But my job is all the programs under alcohol and drug and mental health and certainly the homeless fit in there. And we don't have the money so that when a person comes in and wants detox we have to turn them away. So, that's one of the problems that we have. So my hope is that someday we eradicate the heroin/fentanyl scourge so that we can spend time on capital programs like building something for the homeless.

MM: So the heroin scourge is a big, big, perhaps #1 priority?

WD: It is the #1 priority because it's the #1 killer. The #1 killer used to be falls, then it was car crashes, now its heroin.

MM: I think you've given me plenty work with. Thanks so much for your time.

Copyright Cleveland Street Chronicle March 2017 Issue 24#1