It was almost midnight in August last year when Miguel Chavez’ 24-year-old son came to the door. Chavez and his wife didn’t know he was out of jail.
Manuel Chavez had been booked into the Santa Fe County jail a month earlier for threatening his parents with a walking stick that his father keeps outside the kitchen door. He'd been released three days prior to this night, but now he needed a place to stay. He tried two friends, tried his grandfather, and now, out of options, he tried his parents.
"He was worked up," Miguel recalls, sitting on a sawhorse in his woodworking shop off Baca Street.
Before long, he and his son were debating. When Miguel noticed the knife, he told police he shoved his son Manuel out the door. They were shouting at each other. Neighbors woke. He still has scars from wrestling the blade away from his son.
It's been 10 months since that encounter, and Manuel just celebrated his 25th birthday in jail. His parents could bond him out, but if history is any indication, he might be back in custody in a matter of days. He's safer, his father thinks, in jail than he is outside it, risking another run-in with the law and a deeper spiral into the criminal justice system.
Manuel is living with bipolar disorder.
Like thousands of families in Santa Fe impacted by mental illness, navigating the diagnosis has been an ordeal for the Chavezes. Even getting his son to recognize his mental illness has been a challenge, the elder Chavez says.
"I'm the victim, in the system," Miguel tells SFR. "But he's been more victimized by all this than I have."
The two charges of aggravated battery on a family member Manuel faces came after a series of escalating brushes with the law. It started with petty misdemeanors like panhandling or loitering. There were bench warrants for ignoring traffic violations; the warrants themselves were ignored, too.
"It doesn't get their attention in the way that you think it should," Miguel says of his son's reaction to the warrants. "Because they feel like they're being picked on."
He wishes he'd found a way to help his son when the illness started manifesting itself in Manuel's late teens.
A former county commissioner, it's a big part of the reason Miguel pushed hard for two ballot measures last November. One allocated $5 million for community health centers in Santa Fe County. The other was a non-binding question that asked voters how they felt about a proposed 0.125 percent gross receipts tax dedicated for behavioral health services. They both passed. For Miguel, who lost his seat to Anna Hansen in the primary five months before those votes, it was a bittersweet victory.
As the county considers whether to actually approve the gross receipts tax increase, maybe as soon as during the June 27 commission meeting, Miguel has been ever-present at county meetings and study sessions. He's still pushing for the help his son wasn't able to get.
Manuel's mental illness is getting more attention in jail than his father says it was getting on the outside. Manuel was recently appointed a treatment guardian—someone who can monitor what's being done to help him—but his father says a jail is still a jail. It's not built for behavioral health treatment.
The county's plan for the money generated by a new gross receipts tax is to create a behavioral health crisis center, a one-stop shop that can ease some of the strain on other county services—including the jail—that aren't set up to properly support mental well-being.
"Our vision is to provide a safe and secure place for Santa Fe County adults with behavioral health issues—both mental health and addiction issues—and their families and caregivers to find information and receive assistance in times of crisis," says Rachel O'Connor, the county health and human services director. "And to provide linkages with needed services."
That's a well-rehearsed explanation, but it needs to be. O'Connor wants to be crystal clear about what the center—generically called a crisis triage center—can do for the county.
O'Connor prizes what she calls a "living room model" for mental health care: a safe space for people experiencing mental illness to decompress, speak to peers about what they're feeling and, potentially, escape getting sucked into the criminal justice system. It focuses on how they might better live with mental illness.
She's been meeting with local law enforcement for months to figure out how to handle an incident that might normally end up with a trip to jail. "We haven't figured out who goes where, when," she tells SFR, but she says police agencies are largely on board.
The anticipated gross receipts tax on its own would generate about $1.6 million a year to fund the center. Language discussed at a recent meeting would target that money for behavioral health, though critics argue that promise isn't iron-clad. Even if the county opts for less than the full 0.125 percent and goes with an increase of just half that, behavioral health services should get more than $1 million. The tax would be imposed in the whole county, including the city limits.
It's the kind of early intervention effort O'Connor says could have helped someone like Manuel Chavez. She's familiar with the case.
Miguel isn't judging his son's difficulties with the bipolar disorder diagnosis. He and the rest of his family had a hard enough time accepting that Manuel was living with mental illness. When the court found Manuel wasn't mentally fit to stand trial, his father says, "that was a real wake-up call."
There's a long, difficult road ahead for the Chavez family. Speaking up about it, Miguel hopes, means they and others won't have to navigate the challenging world of behavioral health care alone.