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August 21st, 2012
04:00 PM ET

Navigating the mentally ill away from jail

By Rich Phillips, CNN

Savannah, Georgia (CNN) - As Billy Carruthers confidently walks through Savannah's Forsyth Park, the homeless residents do a double take.

Most remember Carruthers as a mentally ill, homeless, drug addict who spent his day conning tourists to buy books, then using the money to feed his cocaine habit. Carruthers is bipolar and suffers from depression. It took many years of arrests and falling off his medication before he could kick his cocaine habit.

"They look at me today, there's one thing, beyond a shadow of a doubt that they see. They see change. They see recovery," Carruthers said. "They say, 'Where you been? What happened to you?' That's what recovery is."

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Today, Carruthers is helping those still living on the streets cope with their mental illnesses as part of an experimental program in Georgia. Supporters of the Opening Doors to Recovery program believe it can help stop prisons, jails and hospitals from becoming dumping grounds for the mentally ill.

The program is trying to show state leaders the benefits of putting state money into this front end program rather than funding prisons and hospitals - which are much more expensive, according to Nora Haynes who oversees the project for the National Alliance of Mentally Ill, or NAMI.

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