The numbers speak for themselves, but Matt Lennick, Tony Nichols and Joel Simpson don’t mind telling a visitor how well a new program is working both downtown and citywide.
They point out statistics that indicate the Motivated Addiction Alternative Program is having the desired effect of getting Billings’ identified serial inebriate population into treatment — or, if they choose, into jail for somewhat lengthy stays:
- From Jan. 1 through Sept. 1, 2014, calls regarding public inebriation, including alcohol-related trespass, numbered 832 within the boundaries of the Business Improvement District, roughly the city’s downtown, where Lennick and Nichols serve as downtown resource officers, and Simpson, a licensed addictions counselor at Rimrock, is the resource outreach coordinator. During the same period this year, 566 calls came in.
- Open container citations plunged during the same period from 1,050 in 2014 to 567 in 2015. Alcohol-related trespass, mostly within the BID boundaries, dropped from 466 to 357.
- From July 1 through Sept. 30, there were 264 MAAP incidents — open container violation and alcohol-related trespass. Of those, 214 offenders chose a written citation or arrest, determined by how many times in the past 30 days they’d been cited, and 50 — 19 percent — chose to speak with an addictions counselor. “That’s 50 cases that were diverted out of the courts and out of jail,” Lennick noted.
- Of the 214 cited or arrested, 32 cases representing 29 people (some with multiple offenses) went through the court system. 27 of those cases (24 people) chose addiction treatment provided daily by Simpson. Five decided to do the jail time.
“It has made a huge difference, as you can see from the numbers. This program has deterred people from drinking in public,” said Nichols, who like Lennick is employed by the Downtown Billings Alliance while remaining as Billings police officers. “The program has been great so far, and Joel has been great.”
“There is a cultural aspect to what we deal with. Joel is Crow,” Nichols said. “He can recognize problems, and he has a great rapport with (Billings’ 70-90 serial inebriates). There’s no way we could do this without him. We have to be together, and if we aren’t together, it’s not successful.”
Each day at 9 a.m., Nichols holds classes at St. Vincent de Paul for serial inebriate offenders who choose the option. When he’s done, he and his two police partners either bike or drive around downtown, making contact with sometimes dozens of people in just a few hours on patrol.
“I have social workers ask me all the time, ‘How did you bridge this gap with law enforcement?’” Simpson said. “Historically we have worked in two different worlds.”
Lennick labeled the summer of 2014 — when he and Nichols spent day after day writing citations, only to see the offender out of jail and back on the street the next day — “a rough summer. We were trying to figure out a good way to address the problem, but we were writing 20 tickets a day.”
“It makes it hard to get up in the morning and go to your job,” Nichols said. “Matt and I told each other so many times, ‘I don’t know if I can do this much longer.’ Now that we have this program and are seeing some success, it makes it fun to come to work.”
Lennick said he’s noticed some social worker skills finding their way into his daily duties. “It’s nice to be able to help people,” he said. “They know we still hold them accountable, but they also know they can ask us for help.”
On Tuesday, he said, he caught a repeat offender with an open container, and Lennick began offering the man his choices — addiction treatment or jail time, which for MAAP offenses are 60 days in jail for the fifth offense in a 30-day period.
“He was crying, telling me he was worthless and no good,” Lennick said. “I was more social worker that day. I told him, ‘You aren’t worthless. I know you can do whatever you want.’”
Lennick got the man into treatment, “and he’s still there. Are we solving homelessness? No, but we have done well figuring out the problem, addressing the problem and seeing positive results.”
It’s been a team effort getting to the point where the three spoke last week at the San Francisco gathering of the International Downtown Association, where the Downtown Billings Alliance received a Pinnacle Award. The three credit Sheriff Mike Linder for signing off on increased jail time for repeat offenders who refuse to accept treatment or counseling and Municipal Court Judge Sheila Kolar for agreeing to — and handing down — MAAP sentencing guidelines.
Simpson will celebrate with his first graduate of intensive outpatient treatment on Oct. 20. “He’s now in sober housing, and he plans to go back to college. That’s huge,” Simpson said of the 47-year-old man. “A year ago he couldn’t have even thought about that. He’s been homeless in several cities, but he’s changed. He reached rock bottom when he was facing some serious (prison) time. That was his turning point. Now he’s our group leader.”
The next step, the three men agreed, is for Billings to secure a grant or enough local funding to provide people in treatment with safe, sober housing
“There really isn’t much sober housing for women,” Simpson said. “Women tend to be more traumatized on the street. They have more of a history.”
“It is a struggle for people who don’t have a place to live,” Nichols said. “They may spend two hours a day with Joel, but there are 22 other hours in the day. Having a place to go is something we need badly.”