Seeking solutions: Even successful community programs have ‘lessons learned’

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

WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — Wichita and Sedgwick County leaders are examining a program in San Antonio as a potential way to deal with homelessness, substance abuse, and mental health issues.

San Antonio started looking for solutions to its homelessness, mental health issues, and substance abuse issues nearly 20 years ago. The result is Haven for Hope, a one-stop shop that deals with each of those issues and the underlying causes, and The Restoration Center, a facility next door that includes mental health and substance abuse resources.

While it is considered a success, and has become known as the “San Antonio model” that has been studied in communities across the country, there were problems and doubts along the way.

Problem: The cost

“We had no money,” said Leon Evans, former Center for Health Care Services president.

The community had to find the money to construct the campus and find sustaining funds for the day-to-day operations.

“Getting people to buy into it was a slower process because it hadn’t been done before,” said Molly Biglari, Haven for Hope interim president and CEO.

She credits a San Antonio philanthropist for coming to the rescue.

“It takes a leader and that was Mr. Bill Greehey,” said Biglari. “And it takes a wonderful mayor, city council, everyone was behind it.”

Greehey is the former CEO of gas company Valero. He lobbied and used his connections to raise more than $60 million from the private sector. The construction project cost was $100.5 million, with government funds paying the remaining cost.

Haven for Hope said Greehey has personally donated more than $34 million to support the organization and its partners over the years.

Day-to-day operations for Haven for Hope are split between government and private funds. Federal, state, and local government contribute 56% and 36% comes from private contributions. The remaining 8% comes from the United Way and the campus partners who contribute to the building costs and maintenance.

Challenge: Getting other organizations to work together

After funding, the next big challenge was a long-term one — taking individual organizations and helping them work together. Biglari said that some organizations were concerned that Haven for Hope would take over the individual organizations’ operations, or impact their ability to raise funds.

“They were justifiably upset,” Biglari said. “They already had their own businesses. They were already serving their own clients.”

“It’s a hard thing to do to bring together a lot of independent agencies who are already doing their own thing and getting them to collaborate,” she said.

“Almost everybody said that’s a great plan, but not with my money and my staff,” said Evans.

Organizations that specialize in their efforts may not understand another nonprofit’s focus. Finding common ground is essential when the groups then work together to meet a client’s needs.

“You know and when we talk about collaboration and partnerships within other organizations, we have to educate them as well. What is LGBTQIA? What does that stand for, what does that mean?” said Greg Casillias, Thrive Youth Center, one of two LGBTQ-specific emergency shelters in the state of Texas.

It took being honest about what wasn’t working in their current plan.

“Finding that you’re doing something bad or wrong or inefficient or ineffective, it’s a good thing, because then you work at it,” Evans said. In the early stages, a committee worked with the mental health authority to talk openly and “see the good the bad, and the ugly. Because, believe me, there are a lot of things that go wrong.”

“You know the collaboration has to come from all sectors and it has to be meaningful. It can’t just be a meeting twice a year,” said Melody Woosley, director San Antonio Human Services Department. She said CEOs, business leaders and elected officials had to play a major role “but you have to have working groups, your people on the ground that understand homelessness and in the response system and are willing to maybe change what they’re doing.”

“Listen to learn, and not listen to respond,” Casillias said. “I may do something well, but I can’t do everything well.”

It’s an essential step in considering a first-of-its-kind model and one Haven for Hope continues to work on.

“Whenever you’re collaborating is not the easiest thing,” said Melody Woosley, director San Antonio Human Services Department. “No one can do this by themself.”

Location, location, location

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

One challenge could have been the location, but it turned out to be one of the easiest decisions. Vacant warehouses near downtown San Antonio provided the space they needed.

“There happened to be acreage in a really great location that honestly was full of abandoned warehouses where folks already were who needed services,” Biglari said.

The Haven for Hope campus stretches over 37 acres with 67 separate campus partners that provide services on campus.

Problems remain

There are challenges that will never be entirely solved.

“Homelessness is with us,” Woosley said. “And there have been homeless people since the beginning of time, I think, and, and we will always need to have systems in place.”

“We were an 18-year overnight success,” said Evans, acknowledging the continuing process to improve and find new solutions. “We started with no money, no vision, no nothing, you know, except, you know, all of a sudden, an opportunity to bring this to the forefront and at least work on it.”

The advocates in San Antonio who have talked with Wichita and Sedgwick County leaders say they are impressed with the level of collaboration already starting in south-central Kansas. But, they also say there is still a lot of work left to do.

“I tell people, don’t, don’t do what we did here, you know? Do your own thing, you have different leaders different services,” said Evans. “Here’s some things are happening in San Antonio and across the United States, that can help inform what you’re doing in Wichita, so it needs to be your plan and your vision. And that way, you put your heart and soul in.”

In our next report on Seeking Solutions, we will look at the challenges in Sedgwick County and hear what our leaders say is needed to get this process to the next level.

This article is a collaborative effort involving two members of the Wichita Journalism Collaborative, KSN-TV and The Journal, a print and digital magazine published by the Kansas Leadership Center. To report on this story, Journal contributor Mark Wiebe and KSN reporter Hunter Funk traveled to San Antonio to learn about the mental health system there. The Wichita Journalism Collaborative funded the trip through a grant from the New York City-based Solutions Journalism Network. 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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