Two cities give Billings advice on helping street people


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Deni McLagan, manager of the Serial Inebriate Program in San Diego, makes a point Wednesday during a Community Innovations Summit at the Babcock Theatre. On her right are Richard Schnell, John Liening and Mark Carmona.

Nearly 200 people gathered in the Babcock Theatre Wednesday to hear how other cities developed innovative programs to ease two of the biggest problems in downtown Billings.

Representatives from San Diego, Calif., talked about their Serial Inebriate Program to help alcoholics finally kick the habit, and the president of Haven for Hope in San Antonio, Texas, talked about what has been described as the largest single effort in the country to do something about homelessness.

The half-day Community Innovations Summit, which attracted business owners, social-service providers, city and county officials and elected officials, is just the start of what could be a long and expensive process.

But in a booklet passed out at the event, the city’s Community Development Division, working with the Police Department, laid out the cost of doing nothing in stark terms.

According to that document, the most recent count showed that about 700 people were homeless in Billings at any given time, but only 74 of them were identified as chronically homeless. Part of the definition of chronic is having a disabling condition, usually mental illness, addictions or both.

The Community Crisis Center conducted a data analysis on several individuals considered chronically homeless and estimated each one cost taxpayers $115,690 a year in terms of emergency services, hospitalizations and corrections. Multiply that figure by 74 chronically homeless people and the annual bill is just over $8.5 million.

Similar calculations in cities across the country have a lot of people looking at the models in San Diego and San Antonio, as well as models in other communities.

In Billings, plans for the summit were laid in May, when a meeting of the Downtown Billings Alliance attracted more than 100 people, many of them downtown business people alarmed over what was perceived as a growing problem with public drunkenness, drunk-and-disorderly behavior and associated problems.

City Administrator Tina Volek said at the end of the Wednesday gathering that nothing was decided and the conversation had just begun.

“It really and truly is up to the community to tell us what they want to do,” she said.

More work will be done Thursday morning, when some of the people at the Wednesday meeting will gather at the Northern Hotel from 7 a.m. to noon for a series of workshops aimed at deciding what steps should be taken next.

At the Babcock, a three-person team from San Diego talked about the Serial Inebriate Program. The team consisted of John Liening and Richard Schnell, a San Diego cop and a retired San Diego cop, respectively, who have worked in the program for years, and Deni McLagan, a social worker who manages the program.

In California, people who are publicly drunk can be sent to four-hour “sobering services,” and those sent there more than four times in one year can be arrested for public intoxication. They are then given a choice: six months of addiction and mental health treatment or incarceration.

Such a program would be not possible under current Montana law, as the booklet mentioned above points out. State law specifically says that public intoxication is not by itself a criminal offense.

However, drunk people can be detained for their own protection, and Volek said a slightly different model in Reno, Nev., steers people toward treatment using a similar provision in Nevada law. But legislative solutions are on the agenda for the Thursday meeting, so outlawing public intoxication may be one possible recommendation.

The San Diego presenters said the Serial Inebriate Program follows the drug court method of convincing people to seek help as an alternative to jail.

“We changed the dynamic on the street,” Schnell said.

Liening said cops traditionally don’t interact well with social workers, but the experience of arresting the same small group of chronic alcoholics day after day clearly was not working, and police officers ultimately saw the wisdom of using a drug-court-like approach.

In California, it took a state Supreme Court decision in 2004 before cities were allowed to ban public drunkenness. “This was a big deal,” Schnell said.

Haven for Hope, the program in San Antonio, is much more comprehensive, with a 22-acre campus that has a “courtyard” shelter for street people, giving them access to meals, showers, laundry, legal services and basic medical and mental health services.

The bigger mission is carried on at its Transformational Campus, a 323,000-square-foot complex offering a wide array of educational, medical and mental-health services, all designed to move people out of homelessness.

Carmona, the CEO, said Haven for Hope brings together 91 partners offering various services, in addition to 50 “faith teams” from San Antonio churches that lead a variety of programs and then help sponsor individuals and families after they leave the campus.

Since Haven for Hope opened in April 2010, Carmona said, 1,850 people have left there for permanent housing, and 92 percent were still in their homes a year later. He also said that 1,700 people made the move from the temporary courtyard to the Transformational Campus.

In a question-and-answer session after the presentations, Carmona said there was an initial influx of people from other parts of Texas and the United States when Haven for Help first opened.

Some people were being sent there by authorities in other cities or states, he said, and some people came on their own to take advantage of the services. As a result, he said, Haven for Hope decided people had to have residency in San Antonio for more than a year before being admitted to the Transformational Campus, though the courtyard is still open to all.

Word got out into the homeless community pretty quickly, he said, and the number of people coming to San Antonio to use the campus dropped significantly.

McLagan, manager for the Serial Inebriate Program in San Diego, told people at the Babcock to listen to the people living on the streets.

“No one will tell you quicker what they need than the person asking for help,” she said.



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