Seeking solutions: The hurdles ahead for Wichita and Sedgwick County

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This is the fifth 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 considering a San Antonio success story as a way to address substance abuse, mental health and homelessness, but they acknowledge there are challenges ahead.

Haven for Hope, San Antonio (KSN Photo)

The San Antonio solution is Haven for Hope, a campus-style program where nonprofits come together to provide dozens of services, including housing, mental health care, detox, and job training.

“We have to shift our mentality,” Sedgwick County Commissioner Lacey Cruse said.

Can we afford it?

Working to transform a community is no easy task. First comes funding – a significant obstacle for the construction of any campus-based system.

“Just the campus itself will probably cost us $12- to $15-million,” Sedgwick County Commissioner David Dennis said. “That’s just for property. That doesn’t count any buildings.”

In San Antonio, private funding took care of 60% of the $100.5 million price tag. A Texas oilman stepped up to help with financing by donating some of his own money, convincing others to donate, and lobbying agencies for support.

“We need that individual here in Sedgwick County,” Dennis said.

San Antonio is about three times the size of Sedgwick County, and our community leaders are not considering something as large as the one in Texas, but they say private funds would be an essential step here, too.

“It’s a no-brainer. We need to help with this,” Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter said. “That’s what we need to do here because we got a lot of big industry here, a lot of big businesses here.”

Long-term financial sustainability would benefit from donations and rely on financial support from the state, federal and local levels.

Collaboration

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

The Kansas leaders who visited Haven for Hope in San Antonio saw a lot of people working together. There are 67 separate partners that provide regular services on a 37-acre campus. Kansas leaders say that kind of cooperation and collaboration would be essential to bring meaningful change to the Wichita community.

Wichita and Sedgwick County already have some government agencies and nonprofits working together.

“When it comes to collaboration, we have a lot of people doing incredible things, but are we really moving the needle?” Cruse said.

Haven for Hope said it was difficult, but not impossible, to convince independent groups who already had their own goals, budgets and staff to collaborate for the greater good.

Staffing and beds

(KSN Photo)

To help more people with mental health and substance abuse issues, Sedgwick County leaders say COMCARE (Comprehensive Community Care of Sedgwick County) would have to expand.

“We are using every bit of square footage in this building, so the need for crisis expansion and being able to expand on the already good work that we’re doing here is vital,” said Jennifer Wilson, COMCARE Crisis Services Director.

“We do lack hospital beds,” she said. “So when a higher level of care is needed, there’s often waits for state hospital (openings).”

(KSN Photo)

Wilson said an expansion would benefit from 24-hour medical care, something the San Antonio model offers with The Restoration Center, through the Center for Health Care Services, in its detox and recovery unit. Someone who is highly intoxicated or has minor injuries could be treated in-house instead of going to the emergency room. She says it saves money and also gets the person connected to detox or a crisis-stabilization unit faster.

“It would be 24-hour medical care, and the funding for that is pretty significant,” Wilson said. “From my understanding, around $800,000 for 24-hour medical care in facility.”

“COMCARE needs to expand,” the sheriff said. “They need to have a bigger footprint. We need to have space for our partners to be in there, as well.”

But space alone won’t address a lack of employees.

(KSN Photo)

“We’ve got several challenges right now,” Dennis said. “One is staffing. We’re way down on staffing for our COMCARE currently. And if we build a bigger facility, we will be in even worse shape.”

“We have to be able to pay the people who are doing the services … what they’re worth, quite frankly,” Cruse said. “We have to be able to pay them better than McDonald’s down the streets. I mean, they are caring for people at their worst hour.”

Community support

If city and county leaders choose to go with a campus-based facility, they say they will need everyone’s support — law enforcement, hospitals, COMCARE, nonprofits, and more. But it could be an uphill battle.

“Ideally, it’s just all of the partners working together,” Wilson said. “Having everyone buy into the planning process and being able to see what they can contribute.”

She said the end result is the most important thing.

“That’s what it’s all about — getting people connected to care, so they improve their quality of life,” Wilson said.

(KSN Photo)

“How do we get the private sector engaged?” Robyn Chadwick, president, Ascension Via Christi St. Joseph, said. “Because businesses in Wichita, especially in the downtown central core, will certainly benefit from us, the coalition, being able to come together to provide shelter, to provide outpatient therapy services, to provide help with transportation, help with job skills.”

“This is a systemwide change,” Cruse said. “We are trying to change a system that has been operating … the way it’s been operating for years and years and years. And so, that’s not going to change overnight, but we have to set measurable goals and then all the work to achieve those goals.”

Is it the right solution for Wichita?

“What is our number one priority?” Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Howell asked, and a joint meeting between with the Wichita City Council in September. “It can’t be all of the above. I think we need to prioritize. Is it the campus, or is it mobile mental health? I think they, they’re competing for the same dollars, in my opinion.”

There is no formal consensus yet that what works in San Antonio would work here. If Wichita and Sedgwick County can overcome the challenges of cost, collaboration, and staffing, there is still the issue of where to put a campus-based facility. Would one campus reach the entire community?

“Can we branch out to where the need is, such as in other areas of the city?” Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple said at the September meeting “Or are we still going to concentrate this in one area of the city?”

“It needs to be close to housing,” Easter said. “It needs to be close to transportation. It needs to be close to the other services that’s offered and kind of the downtown Wichita area.”

Staying hopeful

Even with all the challenges and questions, there is a sense of optimism. The people in San Antonio say that the community is already way ahead of where they were in the early stages of seeking a solution.

“We’re moving faster than I thought we were,” Easter said. “The guy that really put this all together for them and worked on it for 17 years, he’s come up and spoke a couple of times.”

While in Wichita, the man also evaluated some of the systems that are already in place.

“He’s like, ‘Hey, you guys got a lot in place that we never even had until we went through this process,'” Easter said. “‘You know, it might not be 17 years for you. It might be five to 10.'”

“I will tell you, really looking at our strategic agenda, looking at an area and actually building and relocating COMCARE, we’re about two years ahead of where I thought we would be, because we gave ourselves about three to five years, and we’re in year three of our strategic agenda,” Easter said.

“Will it be done in the next four years, I don’t know,” Dennis said. “I hope that before that my term ends up where we can really see some ground moving and we can see some buildings going up to do this.”

“We’ve come a long way in the last five years, and we have a long way we can go,” Wilson said.

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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