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On the street before downtown businesses open

Homeless men sleep on Montana Avenue Thursday morning before most businesses open.

The words “awe-inspiring,” “enthused” and “pumped up” seem out of place when discussing chronic homelessness and public intoxication, yet that’s how Rimrock CEO Lenette Kosovich described a team effort for change.

“The amount of energy and perseverance is absolutely awe-inspiring,” Kosovich said last week. “The folks on our committee are as committed as they were back in October.”

Kosovich and MarCee Neary, manager of Community Crisis Center, are working with other service providers and downtown police officers on ideas for addressing “serial inebriates” and outreach to homeless persons.

First, they are looking at what can be done with existing resources. Here’s their proposal: Put a mental health outreach worker on the street with the two downtown police officers.

The Crisis Center board and the Rimrock board each approved hiring a one-fourth time position, and are seeking a $15,000 grant from Downtown Billings Spare Change for Real Change.

With that grant, the outreach worker could be on the job by June.

Rimrock already provides 10 beds for medical detoxification on a contract with Yellowstone County. That unit doesn’t always run full, but there has been a misperception that it is full or that people can’t get in, Kosovich said.

This week, leaders of Montana Rescue Mission, RiverStone Health, Rimrock and Community Crisis Center plan to sit down and put this community innovation proposal on paper.

“This is the right thing to do for our community,” Kosovich said. “I hope we can create a model for other Montana communities, a model of an efficient, economical way to deliver treatment.”

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Virtually every night, the Community Crisis Center fills every one of its 20 beds with adults who are in crisis because of substance abuse, mental illnesses or both.

But Neary said the center is willing to help more people during daytime hours with counseling and connections to needed community services.

“We need to make sure these folk aren’t on the streets making trouble for business owners and possibly intimidating people,” Neary said. “We’re going to try to do the best we can to help the downtown officers.”

The team also is looking for possible sites for a sobering center, which is one component of the program San Diego has used to reduce the number of chronically drunken individuals on its streets. It’s important to remember that the sobering center wasn’t San Diego’s solution. The key to success, according to members of its Serial Inebriate Program team, is in persuading some chronic offenders to engage in treatment, find housing, and hold onto jobs.

Billings already has small programs helping addicted and mentally ill people achieve those positive changes: District and Municipal treatment courts. Rimrock, Community Crisis Center, Mental Health Center, Montana Rescue Mission and other local organizations help individuals achieve the kind of transformative change that will get them out of the criminal just system and off the streets for the long term.

But all these programs fall short of the demand Billings is seeing today. New people arrive in our city, drawn by the Bakken oil boom or the belief that they will find in the big city what wasn’t available in their small town.

Again and again, Billings people have risen to the challenge to solve community problems. Sometimes that requires state or federal assistance. But first, local people have to step up. Let’s support and utilize the great service providers we have in Billings. Let’s ramp up communications to ensure that everyone involved in street people issues knows what help is available from other agencies and groups.

Neither police, health care, business, nor government can solve these long-running, frustrating community problems alone. But together, we can. Kudos to Rimrock and Community Crisis Center for showing us how to start.

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