Seeking solutions: Addressing mental health, substance abuse and homelessness in Wichita

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WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — On any given day in downtown Wichita, you can see homeless individuals on the streets. Inside the Sedgwick County Jail, you’ll find people with a mental health diagnosis, and others with substance abuse issues. Inside hospital emergency departments or the community crisis center, you’ll see more of the same.

Three major problems impact a multitude of agencies and organizations in the community: mental health issues, substance abuse, and homelessness. They often go hand-in-hand.

“We’ve got people who are really living in a state of crisis,” said Robyn Chadwick, president, Ascension Via Christi St. Joseph.

Government agencies, nonprofits, and other community leaders are trying to find a solution. Many agencies tackle some of the problems, but no single agency tackles all of the issues.

“Our goal really is to take the intersection of substance abuse, mental health, homelessness, kind of that center core where all three of those intersect,” said Chadwick.

“We deal with the same people over and over and over and over again, whether it’s from substance abuse, or whether it’s from mental health care issues,” Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter said.

He sees a jail overflowing with inmates, an increase in crime, psychiatric facilities that are booked out for months, emergency rooms full of patients needing mental health services, and treatment groups that have nowhere to send patients.

“We need to figure out a better way to do this, care of patients or people who need inpatient care, who need help with housing and shelter, who have issues with law enforcement, who need outpatient services,” Chadwick said.

The United Way’s most recent Point-In-Time Homeless Count reports that in Sedgwick County in 2020, a total of 619 adults and children were homeless. The count, done on January 29, 2020, found a 4.4% increase over 2019. Of those who were homeless, the United Way reported 56%, or 292 people, dealt with a serious mental illness, and 41%, or 186 people, had a substance use disorder. Some were in more than one category.

“Our systems need to be much more robust than they are because we’re busting at the seams and we can’t keep up. So it needs to be, I can’t emphasize enough, a collaborative effort of everybody that touches any type of mental health issues, substance abuse issues and homeless issues,” said Easter. “We need to be on the same page.”

Collaboration is a word both Easter and Chadwick say is key. They serve on the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Coalition in Sedgwick County. Founded in 2019, the group includes individuals from city and county government, non-profits, law enforcement, advocacy groups, and private business.

As Wichita and Sedgwick County leaders look for solutions, they are considering what has happened in San Antonio, Texas. A larger community, San Antonio is roughly three times the size of Sedgwick County, but in the past two decades, they’ve faced and addressed similar challenges.

In the early 2000s, the Bexar County Jail was full, and the county was sending inmates to other counties to be housed due to overcrowding. The county was considering a 1,000-bed expansion. Those with mental illness were packing emergency rooms or facing arrest.

“The merchants are all upset with these homeless folks who are aggressively panhandling,” said Leon Evans, former president for the Center for Health Care Services. He said those individuals often end up arrested for “criminal trespassing because they’re passed out on somebody’s doorstep. Some of these people get arrested three or four times a day.”

Melody Woosley, San Antonio Human Services Director, saw many of the same concerns, as homeless encampments became more visible around the city.

Both Evans and Woosley say downtown San Antonio has seen a turnaround, thanks to a large city and county-wide collaboration involving two main organizations: Haven for Hope and The Restoration Center.

“We feel like it has made a tremendous difference in the community,” Woosley said. “We look at other communities where homelessness is growing and growing, and we feel like Haven for Hope has helped us and so, as our population grows and Bexar County, that our per capita amount of homelessness has actually declined.”

Haven for Hope

In 2006, San Antonio community leaders started investigating new ways to address the issues. One of those leaders was Bill Greehey, the retired CEO of gas company Valero and a business leader and philanthropist in the community.

The 18 months of research into the problem included looking at 200 different homeless shelters and the root causes of homelessness. At the time, there were multiple organizations that worked to help homeless individuals in San Antonio, but there was little collaboration between them. The vision was to create a one-stop shop that tackles many of the issues that contribute to homelessness. Greehey led the fundraising effort and helped found Haven for Hope.

“He doesn’t want to give you a handout,” said Evans. “He’s a businessman. He wants to give you a hand up.”

With Greehey’s efforts, private funding took care of 60% of the $100 million price tag of Haven for Hope. Good timing also played a role in locating the place just a mile from the downtown area.

“There happened to be acreage in a really great location that honestly was full of abandoned warehouses where folks already were who needed services,” said Molly Biglari, Haven for Hope’s interim president and CEO.

Haven for Hope opened in 2010. The 37-acres campus includes a coalition of nearly 70 separate organizations.

“Everyone is their own organization, with their own mission, their own funding, their own boards, and they choose to be here to serve our clients,” Biglari said.

There are two main parts to Haven for Hope: the Transformational Campus and The Courtyard.

The Courtyard

The Courtyard at Haven for Hope gives homeless people a safe place to stay. (KSN Photo)

Many clients start their journey in The Courtyard, a wide outdoor and indoor space. It offers a safe place for people to sleep, hang out, get meals, shower, get medical and mental health care, and other essential services. It also has lockers for those who need a place to store belongings. In addition, it is a 24-hour facility.

“Everyone deserves to get to a better place, and we believe that housing is not something you earn. It’s a right for everyone, but it looks different for everyone, and we do that here,” Biglari said.

Transformational Campus

The Transformational Campus is a place people can go to get housing in the men’s women’s and family dorms. While on campus, clients have to agree to enter a 90-day treatment program.

According to Haven for Hope, on June 30, 906 people were living on the Transformational Campus or at the Haven-operated Hotel, including 346 single men and 100 single women. The family area housed 65 adults and 115 children, with 280 individuals at the hotel.

Biglari says the average time on that campus is about four and a half months. That length of time and the program give people the chance to get back on their feet and address the root cause of their homelessness. A wide variety of resources are available for clients, including job training, case management, shelter for pets, mental health counseling, substance use classes, day care, and dozens of other options.

“Most people don’t realize that homelessness can affect anyone, families, it can affect older folks. We had one woman who said her son had thrown her out because she’d had a stroke. She was 64,” Biglari said.

Since opening, the organization says over 5,901 people have moved from the transformational campus into permanent housing and 89% of people that left the program with a housing placement did not return to homelessness, one year later.

The Restoration Center

This map shows Haven for Hope with The Restoration Center near the lower right corner. (Courtesy Haven for Hope)

Across the street from Haven for Hope is The Restoration Center. The two organizations collaborate to provide services. Evans, the former Center for Health Care Services president, is behind this mental health initiative.

“We really don’t address very often the root causes of their homelessness, you know, which is mental illness and addiction,” Evans said. “We started with no money, no vision, no nothing, you know, except, all of a sudden, an opportunity to bring this to the forefront.”

Evans began working in mental health care in Texas in the 1970s and spent the last two and a half decades addressing mental health issues in Texas jails and prisons. In the early 2000s, he implemented a jail diversion program in Bexar County, with the intent to keep people with mental illness from entering the criminal justice system.

His efforts expanded into a detox center, as a place where law enforcement could bring individuals who would have been arrested for public intoxication, keeping them out of the Bexar County Jail. It evolved into The Restoration Center – a facility providing psychiatric care, substance use services, and general health care. The center includes a 28-bed detox unit, 16-bed sobering unit, and 16-bed crisis unit.

Since 2008, more than 50,000 people have received help through the center and Evans says tens of thousands have entered treatment programs. The county reports that between 2007 and 2020, jail bookings dropped by half, from 49,497 in 2007 to 24,208 last year.

Source: Bexar County

Evans believes The Restoration Center and Haven for Hope were key players in decreasing the jail population and dropping the downtown homeless numbers. Although Bexar County’s population has increased by 17% between 2010 and 2020, its overall homeless population, as determined through the Point-in-Time Homeless Count, has remained steady. According to Haven for Hope, the downtown San Antonio homeless population has decreased by 77% since 2010.

These two large organizations, known as the San Antonio model, are inspiring leaders in Sedgwick County.

“We’re trying to figure out how to build a smaller version of San Antonio here in Wichita,” said Sedgwick County Commissioner David Dennis. He said throwing money at the problem is not working. Instead, he and other leaders want a sustainable way to resolve multiple issues with collaboration.

“To do that, it’s going to take a lot of money, and it’s going to take a lot of people being involved in it, and it’s not just the government. We have to have the nonprofits involved in it also,” said Dennis. “In the long run, it’s going to save us money.”

“It’s a good place to look and to say, ‘Okay, this is something that we could maybe replicate here, the Wichita way,'” Sheriff Easter said.

There are a lot of challenges ahead for the Wichita and Sedgwick County community, as it looks to learn lessons from the San Antonio model. That includes finding funding for the initial construction of a campus, finding a location, providing staffing, and getting local business and community leaders on board. Leaders in San Antonio say they made mistakes throughout the process but hope to pass their lessons on to other communities like Wichita.

“I’ve been all over the United States, and the last time I was in Wichita, yeah, the program there was one of the best in the United States for sure,” Evans said. “They had the right vision. The culture there of hope, health and healing is there.”

This is the first story in a continuing KSN series focusing on mental health and substance abuse treatment and homelessness facing Wichita and Sedgwick County.

KSN’s reporting is in conjunction with The Wichita Journalism Collaborative, an alliance of seven media organizations and three community groups, formed to support and enhance quality local journalism. In addition to KSN, media partners include The Active Age, The Community Voice, The Journal (Kansas Leadership Center), KMUW, The Sunflower and The Wichita Eagle. Community partners committed to participating in the initiative include AB&C Bilingual Resources, The Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University and Wichita Public Library.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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