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Two Yellowstone County commissioners are stuck on a dangerous delusion about what mental health care means to our community.

Adults with serious mental illnesses who are homeless or at risk for being homeless can get off the street at the HUB, a program of the nonprofit Mental Health Center, located at 515 N. 27th St. Yellowstone County Commissioners Don Jones and Denis Pitman want to move the HUB to the South Side of the railroad tracks to property owned by the Montana Rescue Mission. 

Jones and Pitman are putting location before people in their drive to get the HUB off a main downtown thoroughfare. Mental Health Center Executive Director Barbara Mettler and other board members are open to relocating the program — if the space is affordable. The location must also be accessible for the people who need it, including those who don't have their own vehicles, who have disabilities and who are generally distrustful of institutions.

The commissioners' HUB relocation efforts became public last summer and continued Thursday at a commission meeting when Pitman presented a letter that called on the Mental Health Center's governing board to relocate the HUB. Pitman specifically complained that the HUB should enroll people in Medicaid. He also said that the Mental Health Center should investigate starting a mobile crisis unit.

Pitman has been on the Mental Health Center's governing board for three years and until late Thursday served as its chairman, yet he obviously doesn't know what the HUB and other Mental Health Center actually do. For starters, the HUB (and other local health care programs that serve Medicaid patients) help eligible people enroll in that program. It's a basic service.

In fact, the Mental Health Center and other Billings health care providers already have collaborated on a mobile crisis unit proposal and are waiting to hear on a state grant application.

In its last full fiscal year, the HUB provided:

  • Employment assistance to 514 people.
  • Helped 667 people get housing.
  • Enrolled 738 people in mental health care.
  • Enrolled 228 people in addiction treatment.

People who have a home, a job and effective treatment for serious behavioral disorders are much less likely to get into trouble with the law.

The HUB operates a snack bar where a cup of coffee costs a dime and midday lunch is free. All the HUB's other services are free of charge to people who need them, thanks to county and state funding. HUB services aren't covered by Medicaid.

The Mental Health Center owns the old brick building that houses the HUB and PATH (Projects Assisting in the Transition from Homelessness), a program that conducts outreach to homeless adults and adolescents wherever they are in Billings. Pitman's preferred locations would add expenses for HUB rent and renovation, despite the commissioner's call for "fiduciary responsibility" to taxpayers.

The letter Pitman proposed Thursday offered no evidence of cost savings or service improvement for the move. He did provide schematics, photos and descriptions of two old buildings owned by Montana Rescue Mission.

For his part, Commissioner John Ostlund opposed sending a letter telling the Mental Health Center board to move the HUB. Ostlund pointed out that making such decisions is the reason why there is a health center board that includes representation from each county in the region.

Jones and Pitman have put the Mental Health Center on notice that they may stop funding it from the public safety mental health levy voters approved in 2010. Before that election, voters were told that the money would support programs like the HUB and the Community Crisis Center. The present annual budget provides about $179,000 from that levy to keep the HUB open 9-5 weekdays. A state grant of about $200,000 provides the remainder of the HUB budget, according to Mettler.

The problem with Pitman and Jones' relocation push is that they are trying to move a successful service for very needy adults for the sake of moving it to a place where South Side neighbors might not even want it. Many of the 100 or so people using the HUB every day look homeless because they are; their illnesses sometimes prevent them from accepting help or living indoors, especially in group shelters. There are sometimes people near the HUB drinking, but they aren't necessarily HUB clients and they certainly didn't get alcohol from the HUB. If the HUB relocated, the habitual drinkers probably would still drink close to their sources for cheap alcohol.

The HUB clients generally are people who have been marginalized and struggling for years. Some aged out of the foster care system, many are Native Americans, some are LGBTQ. Many are not welcome at other places. The HUB is a haven for all who want to engage in mental health care for their serious illnesses. County government must do its part to serve the HUB clients; they are part of our community.

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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.