WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — Drive through downtown Wichita on almost any day of the week, and you may see some of the big problems confronting the community – homelessness, mental health issues, and substance abuse.
“They’re all three related, and some people have all three,” Sedgwick County Commissioner David Dennis said.
The three challenges are impacting our hospitals, law enforcement, and the entire community.
“We’ve got people who are really living in a state of crisis,” said Robyn Chadwick, Ascension Via Christi St. Joseph president.
“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.
Local leaders say despite multiple agencies all dealing with the same concerns for years, there was not a lot of cooperation to find a solution.
“Really a lot of finger-pointing because things were not going very well,” Chadwick said. “After probably a year of kind of fighting back and forth, we said we are all saying the same thing.”
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Coalition
That frustration created an intention to collaborate, and the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Coalition was born. It involves the sheriff’s office, police department, city, county, nonprofits, hospitals, and business leaders.
“We need to figure out a better way to do this,” said Chadwick. “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.”
Wichita has many resources to combat these issues individually:
- COMCARE (Comprehensive Community Care of Sedgwick County) is the county’s mental health authority providing stabilization, detox and sobering and outpatient treatment
- Wichita Police Department and Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office have mental health training for officers and deputies
- Some law enforcement officers get specialized crisis intervention training or work with the Homeless Outreach Team (HOT)
- Dozens of nonprofits, community groups, and private businesses play a role in addressing at least one of the three issues, working alongside the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Coalition
But getting every organization to collaborate is what makes a solution so daunting.
Sheriff Easter said they did hear concerns from non-profits that was concerned about the mission of the coalition, that “we were coming in to be our own nonprofit and take their money and everything else. And that’s not what we are,” he said. “We’re just getting people together and really starting to think of this in a big picture way.”
There are points of collaboration. ICT1 began in 2019. ICT1 (Integrated Care Team) consists of a law enforcement officer, a paramedic, and a mental health professional responding together to those having a mental health crisis. Agencies participating in the program include COMCARE, EMS, the Wichita Police Department, and the Wichita Fire Department.
September 28, the city and county held a joint meeting to tackle these issues. They heard from local non-profits, hospital leaders, and those active in the coalition.
“There are systems of change that are already created. As many of you have mentioned, we don’t have to recreate the wheel here,” County Commissioner Lacey Cruse said.
The Wichita City Council and the Sedgwick County Commission approved staff working directly with the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Coalition to help determine the next steps. They plan to return in 60 days to determine next steps.
Some community leaders have visited Haven for Hope in San Antonio. It is a 37-acre, one-stop-shop campus where people can get help for any or all of the issues of homelessness, substance abuse, and mental health issues. Supporters say Haven for Hope is behind a significant drop in homeless in downtown San Antonio and jail bookings.
But not everyone agrees a campus-based system is the best option for Wichita and Sedgwick County. Regardless of what model moves forward, there are plenty of challenges ahead, including funding and staffing.
This is the third story in a continuing KSN series focusing on mental health and substance abuse treatment and homelessness facing Wichita and Sedgwick County.
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.