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Community Crisis Center

Clients of the Community Crisis Center gather for a meal provided by the Salvation Army's food truck in this Gazette file photo.

Thirteen years after four Billings health care organizations partnered to launch the Community Crisis Center, that partnership continues the mission of serving hard-to-serve people who have mental illnesses and chemical dependencies.

On Monday morning the Crisis Center's operating board met at St. Vincent Healthcare with both Dr. Mike Bush, St. Vincent medical director, and Dr. Barbara Curry, Billings Clinic medical director, among board members attending, along with Mental Health Center Director Barbara Mettler.

The Community Crisis Center's ownership is shared by the two hospitals, which each have a one-third share; the Mental Health Center and RiverStone Health each have a one-sixth share. The four owners have contributed staff time, funds and other services over the years to keep the Crisis Center open 24/7, 365 days a year. No one is denied needed service for inability to pay.

Crisis solution

The Crisis Center, 704 N. 30th St., offers stays of less than 24 hours to stabilize clients, which may include providing a safe place for them to sleep, an assessment of their needs, counseling, help setting goals and referrals to ongoing health care. The center partners recognized more than a decade ago that hospital emergency departments and Billings Clinic's psychiatric unit were being overwhelmed with people in mental health crises who did not need hospitalization but immediately required some care. Law enforcement in Billings, Yellowstone County and surrounding counties often are called to incidents involving people in mental health crisis. These disturbed folks don't belong in jail; they often aren't appropriate for the hospitals' emergency departments where officers sometimes waited for hours.

The Community Crisis Center was created as a solution: Licensed nurses and counselors and trained mental health care staff, augmented by security guards, would screen and assist these folks. The Crisis Center staff would refer those needing hospitalization to Billings Clinic. The center staff would help those who did not need the hospital.

The Crisis Center also relieved law officers from lengthy waits with people in crisis. 

The partnership has survived many challenges. At times, the center barely had funds to make payroll, said Curry, who has served on the center board since its inception.

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Curry commended the center's staff, saying: "Those people have a heart like no other; they have a heart for the people they serve."

Demand for service has grown as Billings grew; the building is too small for the number of people coming in for help. The center rents its building. The lease is up next June, and the property owner has notified the center of intentions to sell it.

Training Oct. 29

Meanwhile, winter is upon us and the demands on the center are expected to be similar to last winter when the center staff had to turn people away to avoid exceeding maximum occupancy for fire safety. My Backyard was created to ease that situation. Three downtown churches — First Congregational, First Baptist and First Christian — volunteered to host up to 10 homeless people who were referred by the Crisis Center on sub-freezing nights.

When October started with a blast of ice and snow, some of last year's volunteers persuaded program director MarCee Neary to reactivate the program early. That emergency reactivation On Oct. 10 and 11, resulted in 10 clients being transported to First Congregational Church each night. The overflow was so great that 12 more people had to wait outside the Crisis Center on the first night and six had to wait outside the building for a time on the second night, Neary said.

My Backyard is a temporary solution, said Bush, chairman of the Crisis Center board. The center needs more space to safely care for clients and needs it quickly. "I don't think we can run the risk of becoming homeless ourselves," he said.

The Crisis Center needs My Backyard volunteers right now. The first volunteer training is set for 6:30 to 9 p.m. Oct. 29, at First Congregational Church. Additional training sessions at the host churches are planned, so volunteers who can't make it Tuesday, can train later. For more information, call Neary at 259-8800.

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