Hub lunch

Mental Health Center staff and volunteers serve a Cinco de Mayo lunch in the Hub parking lot on May 3, 2018. 

Nine years ago, Billings health care providers were struggling to keep the doors open at the Hub and the Community Crisis Center. State funding was variable and uncertain year to year. That's why a levy for "mental health services to assist law enforcement" was proposed by the Yellowstone County Commission and approved by voters who were promised that the money would help sustain the Hub and Community Crisis Center.

More than 55 percent of voters supported the permanent levy.

The Hub, 515 N. 27th St., is a drop-in center for seriously mentally ill adults. The Crisis Center serves people suffering immediate crises due to serious mental illness and substance abuse. Both care for needy people regardless of their ability to pay. Most of their clients arrive homeless or at high risk of becoming homeless. Their clients' behavior often bring them to the attention of law enforcement officers, who would have taken them to jail or a hospital emergency department if not for the availability of the Crisis Center and Hub.

When officers transport a distraught or intoxicated person to a hospital, they are required to stay with that person in busy emergency departments. At the Crisis Center, 704 N. 30th St., staff immediately takes charge of the client and the officer returns to patrol duty.

At the Hub, men and women have a safe weekday haven where they can connect with Mental Health Center services and get medical attention from RiverStone's Healthcare for the Homeless clinic. Last year, the Hub provided employment assistance to 514 people, helped 667 people get housing, enrolled 738 people in mental health care and 228 in addiction treatment.

At least two members of the Yellowstone County Commission apparently don't understand what these mental health programs mean to our community. 

At a meeting Friday, Commissioner Don Jones, who took office in January, put leaders of the Crisis Center and Mental Health Center on notice that their county funding is doubt. Revenue from the voter approved levy has been allocated annually to those two programs, but Jones said that could change as early as the middle of the fiscal year that started Monday.

Jones indicated that he thinks the two programs are awash in money due to Medicaid expansion and have less need for county funds. In fact, most of the services provided at the Crisis Center and Hub are not covered by Medicaid. 

The Crisis Center has seen demand for its services spike over the past year. In the 12 months ending in July 2018, the Crisis Center logged 11,742 visits.  At the end of May 2019 with one month to go in this fiscal year, the center had already logged 12,474 visits.  In July 2018, 211 different people came in for services. In May 2019, the unduplicated caseload was 258 people.

The Crisis Center started hitting its building fire safety capacity nightly after Montana Rescue Mission changed its policy on admitting intoxicated people on freezing nights. Starting in December 2018, downtown churches partnered with the Crisis Center to shelter carefully screened individuals on freezing nights when the center was full with 18 people in beds and more in the lobby.

For his part, Commissioner Denis Pitman said he hopes the Hub and the Crisis Center can move into a building owned by the Montana Rescue Mission on Minnesota Avenue. Mission leadership pitched the idea of renting space to the boards of the Crisis Center and Mental Health Center several months ago. Neither board has accepted the offer. There are concerns about the condition of the old Granny's Attic building that flooded several years ago, cost of renovation, and questions about whether the move would maintain the access and and services needed by their clients. The Mental Health Center owns the Hub building; the Crisis Center rents and its board has been considering how it might get more space. 

Pitman and Jones are right to ask questions to become well informed about these community mental health services. Pitman is Yellowstone County's representative on the Mental Health Center board and current chairman. Jones is a member of the Crisis Center board. However, the commissioners should not threaten to reduce funding for these vital mental health services just for the sake of making changes, or because some neighbors want a mental health program moved to another neighborhood or because they are inclined to support community organization that doesn't provide professional mental health care.

We encourage all commissioners to visit the Crisis Center at night when the staff is triaging people in crisis who come from Yellowstone County and throughout the state. The commissioners should spend some time at the Hub and ask clients why they go to that program.

The Crisis Center and the Hub could be relocated, but any move must be for the right reasons: because it sustains vital community mental health services while making cost-effective use of public funds.

Commissioner John Ostlund, who along with former Commissioners Jim Reno and Bill Kennedy, put the levy on the 2010 ballot, should help enlighten his new colleagues about why the county must sustain community mental health for the neediest people who will either be helped or remain on our streets and in our jail and hospitals.

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