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Mental Health and Substance Abuse Coalition unveils plan to address city, county issues

Rendering of potential COMCARE Crisis Center
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Coalition
Potential Rendering of Future COMCARE Crisis Center

Some initiatives introduced by the coalition included a social services hub, regional mental health hospital, and a homelessness task force.

Several initiatives were introduced Thursday as part of an ongoing conversation to address mental health, substance abuse and homelessness in the community.

The initiatives were introduced by the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Coalition at an en banc meeting with the Sedgwick County Commission and Wichita City Council.

"We're at a point we have to start moving on this," Coalition Chair and Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter said at the meeting.

At the last en banc meeting in September, the coalition was asked to put together a report on how those issues could be addressed.

The coalition was formed in 2019 to address increasing issues with mental health and substance abuse in Sedgwick County. The coalition has members from local law enforcement agencies and elected officials, mental health groups, homeless shelters, and the Wichita School District.

Here are the highlights from the report:

Social services hub

Part of the initiatives the coalition introduced was a social services hub. The hub has been part of conversations in recent years to address ongoing issues with mental health, substance abuse and homelessness.

The hub would provide various services, such as safety net clinics, shelter, job training, and access to hospitals and behavioral health services.

"Right now in our system, the handoff that we do among our agencies is we say, 'okay, this is the name of the organization, this is the address, I've called it, gotten you an appointment for two weeks from tomorrow at 10 o'clock. It's about seven miles from here, here's the information, good luck,'" Robyn Chadwick, coalition member and Ascension Via Christi St. Joseph President, said.

A location for the hub has yet to be decided, but the report notes that other successful hubs are concentrated near downtown areas. This gives people access to already available services, public transportation, the legal system, hospitals and other institutions.

According to the report, an anchor for the social service hub would be the COMCARE Crisis Center. Site selection for it is included in the county’s 2022 Capital Improvement Program.

The center’s current location near the Sedgwick County Courthouse doesn’t allow for much expansion, which would include crisis and detox services. Detox services attached to COMCARE would cost $900,000 a year, according to the report.

Part of the plan includes working with theplannedHealth Sciences Education Center – a shared campus with Wichita State, WSU Tech and the University of Kansas that centralizes medical education. The $200 million center hopes to enroll 2,000 to 3,000 students.

Social services hubs have been implemented in San Antonio, Texas, and Grand Rapids, Michigan, according to the report. Similar initiatives were also implemented in Oklahoma City and Denver.

Regional hospital

Part of the coalition’s legislative agenda is a request for the state of Kansas to build a regional hospital addressing mental health needs. The hospital would increase the state’s available bed count by 50, with 25 involuntary beds, 10 competency beds and 15 for restoration.

"We think that's the right number. We could be proved wrong but that's what we think right now," Chadwick said.

The coalition wants the hospital to be located in the Wichita-area and is asking the city and county for support.

 Short-term initiatives

The coalition proposed several ideas to be done this year -- including addressing worker shortages in the behavioral health and public safety sector.

"Nothing is going to get better in our community if we don’t have people, feet on the ground, providing these services," Chadwick said.

A survey of workers who left cited the need for better wages and benefits, and a stressful work environment as top reasons for leaving.

Addressing this shortage, according to the coalition, would mean developing and implementing another initiative to address the issue.

Other short-term initiatives included:

- Analyzing already existing resources: The analysis would look at addressing gaps within the current system

- Community Dashboard: Using information gathered by United Way of the Plains, a website will be created that helps narrow down which provider a person should go to when they’re looking for help. An initial cost for the site is $50,000, with $10,000 for annual update and maintenance

- Licensed addiction counselors: Funding to hire two addiction counselors within the Substance Abuse Center of Kansas. The report noted that due to the increased use of illegal drugs, such as meth, there is an increased need for counselors, especially for people leaving the county jail and going into treatment. Hiring two counselors would allow for 16 more treatment beds in the community

- Jail reentry specialist: Hiring a case worker to oversee a re-entry program to help those leaving the criminal justice system find resources

- Expanding ICT-1: ICT-1 helps people going through a mental health crisis by dispatching case workers and paramedics to calls. A report notes that a majority of calls involving ICT-1 helped alleviate resources at area hospitals and jails. The coalition wants to expand ICT-1’s use. Currently, it’s only available 40 hours a week.

- Community Navigators: Creating a pilot program to hire people to help those in need of services find appropriate providers

2023 to 2025 initiatives

The coalition called for other proposals that would take additional time to implement.

That includes addressing the need for residential inpatient addiction beds. While it’s difficult for residents to find bed spaces, it’s increasingly difficult for those leaving the jail with court ordered treatment to also find bed space. The report notes this has led to even more overcrowding in the jail.

The report also calls for an in-custody drug treatment program. For the program to happen, existing state laws would have to be changed to allow judges to sentence someone and receive treatment. The report notes this would also free bed space in the community.

Homelessness task force

At the last en banc meeting, officials also asked the coalition for suggestions on long-term solutions to homelessness in downtown Wichita.

For those solutions to be addressed, the coalition is calling for a homelessness task force to be created to work alongside it. The coalition also is calling for a subcommittee of leadership from area shelter providers such as Union Rescue Mission, United Methodist Open Door, HumanKind and others.

Other homeless initiatives include:

- Finding existing national programs that could be implemented by May of this year to be considered in 2023 budgets.

- Analyzing current providers to identify service gaps

- Adopting enforcement ordinances, but also creating more no-barrier shelter spaces to adopt ordinances

- Addressing violent offenders and predators

- Wichita Police conducting outreach education services to providers and businesses

- Street outreach

- Panhandler Education Campaign directing the public to give money and resources to area providers.

No official action was taken at Thursday's meeting.

Kylie Cameron (she/her) is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, Kylie was a digital producer at KWCH, and served as editor in chief of The Sunflower at Wichita State. You can follow her on Twitter @bykyliecameron.