On Monday, a 16-bed facility designed for adults experiencing a mental-health crisis, including those accused of minor crimes, will open near Seattle's Chinatown International District.
A mentally ill man is wandering around Seattle’s Pioneer Square, mumbling to himself. He’s been accused of stealing a candy bar from a nearby convenience store.
For Seattle police, the options for dealing with the man are few. They can book him into the King County Jail, where he’ll be housed in the facility’s mental-illness/suicide ward. Or they can have him admitted into an already overcrowded Harborview Medical Center.
Either option, says King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, will yield the same result: The man soon will return to the streets and back to his cycle of mental illness.
But on Monday, a 16-bed facility designed for adults in King County who are experiencing a mental-health crisis, including those accused of minor crimes, will open near the Chinatown International District. The Crisis Diversion Center will give police and paramedics a place to bring people where they can connect with mental-health experts and services and receive medications.
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“It’s a much friendlier and a much warmer setting; the professionals will all be there to help them to recovery,” said Amnon Shoenfeld, director of mental health, chemical abuse and dependency services for King County. “The jail is about punitive and control, and the hospitals are a rushed atmosphere; they have to handle them quickly and move them out.”
Bill Hobson, executive director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), which has worked with the region’s homeless and mentally ill for more than 30 years, says the new facility will be “a therapeutic alternative” to jail or the emergency rooms.
“Our whole agenda is to get to know people and to create meaningful discharge plans,” said Hobson, whose DESC will run the Crisis Diversion Center and two partner programs out of the nondescript brown building at 1600 S. Lane St.
The three-pronged program, called the Crisis Solutions Center, is expected to serve some 3,600 people a year, said Shoenfeld.
The program’s origins date to 2006, when politicians, law-enforcement and mental-health experts across King County began looking for alternatives for dealing with the severely mentally ill, other than jail or hospitals. As a result, in 2007 the Metropolitan King County Council enacted a one-tenth of one cent sales tax to fund programs to get the mentally ill and chemically dependent out of jails and emergency rooms.
The Crisis Diversion Center, which will cost $3.5 million annually, is considered the heart of the program. The other two elements of the program — Crisis Diversion Interim Services and the Mobile Crisis team — will bring the total annual cost of the program to $6.1 million.
Each year, Seattle police contact thousands of mentally ill or drug-abusing suspects accused of minor crimes such as disorderly conduct, trespassing or drug possession. Those are the people the Crisis Diversion Center is designed to serve, proponents say.
“In law enforcement this is one of the big challenges … to deal with effectively, more appropriately with folks who are in behavioral health crisis,” Seattle police Deputy Chief Clark Kimerer said. “Places like Harborview are overextended with folks who are decompensating and the jail, which is not a mental health facility.”
According to county statistics, the average length of stay in the King County Jail for felony inmates is 24 days, compared with 158 days for mentally ill inmates. The cost of incarcerating an unstable, mentally ill inmate in the jail’s psychiatric unit is about $300 a day, as opposed to $95 per day for housing in the general housing area.
The precise daily cost of housing at the Crisis Diversion Center has not been determined, but it is expected to be less expensive than the present alternatives, Shoenfeld said.
The Crisis Diversion Center is a voluntary option for people in need, Hobson said. Though the doors will be locked, patients can leave whenever they want, he said.
But leaving the program could result in jail time and punishment, Satterberg said. Mentally ill defendants suspected of more than two dozen misdemeanor crimes and low-level felonies could avoid prosecution if they successfully participate in the Crisis Solutions Center program.
Eligible misdemeanors include criminal trespassing, disorderly conduct, possession of marijuana, unlawful bus conduct, alcohol in a park and prostitution. The eligible felonies are: possession of less than one gram of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine or possession of prescription of drugs without a proper prescription.
“Anybody who works in the criminal-justice system is frustrated to see the same people over and over again brought in on minor offenses,” Satterberg said.
The center hasn’t gone without controversy. The Jackson Place Alliance for Equity, a neighborhood group created in opposition of the Crisis Solutions Center facility, fought the facility in court and lost.
Neighborhood resident Kwame Amoateng said that the group’s main concern was that the facility was zoned as hospital, but it is actually being used by police as another form of incarceration.
Kimerer said the Crisis Solutions Center falls in line in “the general philosophy we’re pursuing.”
Kimerer, the deputy police chief, said that more than 400 Seattle officers have received training to recognize people in a behavioral-health crisis. Eventually, all officers will undergo the crisis-intervention training, he said.
The goal is to have all law-enforcement officers in King County receive similar training, Shoenfeld said.
After being evaluated, prescribed medications and linked with services at the Crisis Diversion Center, which could take up to 72 hours, men and women will “graduate” to Crisis Diversion Interim Services, Hobson said. This secondary program has 23 beds and is located in the same building.
Participants will have greater freedoms in this secondary program.
While in the secondary program, clients will be working on finding permanent housing, be able to have approved visitors and start meeting with a case manager.
Clients can stay in this program up to two weeks, according to King County.
The program also includes two mental-health professionals, who have expertise working with the chemically dependent, to work out of the Crisis Solutions Center building 24 hours a day, seven days a week. These professionals will help first-responders with people in the middle of a mental-health or substance-abuse crisis.
“This is certainly going to be a big relief for our system,” King County’s Shoenfeld said.”The sooner you get them that help the more you can help them recover, get back on their feet and prevent tragedies down the road.”
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.