After about 18 months on the job, Joel Simpson is leaving the position he created — downtown resource outreach coordinator — for a social worker position at the Crow/Northern Cheyenne Hospital at Crow Agency.
Simpson introduced his successor, Dave Kobold, during a Community Innovations meeting Wednesday.
For three weeks, Kobold has been on the job offering services, including treatment and counseling, rather than jail time, to serial inebriates downtown. He will begin soloing, together with a pair of downtown police resource officers, on Monday.
While he’s not Native American, as Simpson is, Kobold is a counselor like Simpson. He said he feels a connection with Native American people and minored in Native American studies while in college.
He’s also a former downtown bartender who was convicted of driving under the influence, went into treatment, and then “rode a bike for four years.”
That drew a laugh from the group of about 30 people, who represent downtown groups, city government, service providers and downtown businesses. Riding a bike, after all, has been a necessary job skill for Simpson.
“The biggest thing we did was to collaborate between counselors and cops,” Simpson said. “I have been glad to be the person to say, ‘If you want something that challenges you, come try treatment.’ I never saw this job as reinventing the wheel, just connecting the spokes. I’m glad to have been part of the journey.”
“Joel has touched this initiative, our community and a lot of lives,” said Lisa Harmon, executive director of the Downtown Billings Alliance. “If he hadn’t opened all the doors he’s opened, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
Simpson recalled his first day on the job, working alongside Officer Tony Nichols, who remains on the job along with Officer Josh Schoening, and Matt Lennick, who has since been promoted to sergeant. He met a man “passed out in the middle of the street,” a man who for more than a year after that initial meeting refused Simpson's offer to enter treatment.
“In July, he finally decided to come in, and in group (meetings) he’s been awesome,” Simpson said. “Maybe the 90th time they’re cited, people aren’t ready, but we’re there when they are ready.”
Kobold said he’s seen gradual acceptance as Simpson has been introducing him to downtown clients.
“For the first week-and-a-half, people looked at me like, ‘What is this guy all about?’ Now they’re shaking my hand and looking me in the eye. I can tell something is clicking, and that tells me maybe I am in the right position."
Simpson received high marks from people grateful for his work creating the position and helping to move people out of the Yellowstone County Detention Facility and into treatment.
“I believe Indians working with Indians is critical, but the approach Joel has taken is all about relationship building,” said Bill Snell, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leadership Council. “People on the street can take one look at you and know where you are coming from, so I think the approach for Joel’s successor should be similar.”
“I have been trying to show Dave the human side of our clients,” Simpson said. “From what I’ve seen, Dave is very comfortable talking with the clients.”
“People will accept you or not accept you in their own time,” Kobold replied. “I just hope that one day they will come to listen to me.”