Local programs are improving mental health care for homeless; barriers remain, experts say

November 8, 2017 | By Jackie Rehwald

Local programs run by police, public agencies and private clinics are helping homeless people gain access to better health and mental health care, but gaps and barriers remain, according to those who attended the first of two community conversation events.

The Springfield Police Department’s Crisis Intervention Training, Burrell Behavioral Health’s Transitions and the Missouri State University Care Clinic were cited as examples of beneficial program at the Tuesday afternoon event, hosted by the Ozarks Alliance to End Homelessness.

The alliance is promoting such events and activities every day in November — Homeless Awareness Month — as part of its “Every Action Counts” campaign.

Tuesday’s panel included Mathew Gass, Burrell Behavioral Health’s director of Transitions; Elisa Coonrod, nurse and case manager at MSU Cares Clinic, and Cpl. Chris Welsh, Springfield Police Department’s Crisis Intervention Team coordinator.

Welsh spoke about the department’s crisis intervention training.

“Any time we respond to a person suffering from mental illness or in crisis, we try to send a CIT officer, who has specialized training in dealing with somebody, trying to calm them down and try to find the correct placement,” Welsh explained. “We basically provide triage on the street or in the house for somebody suffering from substance abuse, mental illness.”

In many instances, rather than taking the subject to jail, Welsh said the CIT officers will put the individual in contact with mental health service providers such as Burrell Behavioral Health, Mercy, Cox Health and the local NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) chapter.

Welsh also spoke about a program in which officers use iPads to set up video chats between individuals they encounter on the street and mental health professionals at Burrell Behavioral Health. The Burrell employees are able to do quick evaluations or set the individuals up with inpatient care or future appointments.

“We give the subject our iPad, let them go off in a corner and talk to a professional that is not a police officer and can decide the best path for them to get some help,” Welsh said. “It works a lot better than the officer forcing somebody to do a 96-hour hold or a trip to jail. That is something we have been really successful within Springfield. And we are proud to be the first to host that in the country.”

Coonrod talked about the MSU Care Clinic, a primary care clinic that provides health and mental health care for low-income adults who are not insured or eligible for Medicare or Medicaid. It also offers hands-on training for students in health sciences degree programs at MSU.

The clinic is a partnership of Mercy Hospital and MSU.

“We do offer services by appointment and we also keep a couple of slots open every day just for those sick visits so folks do not have to go to the emergency room for health care,” she said.

MSU Care Clinic also partners with Burrell Behavioral Heath Care and Ozarks Counseling Center to offer mental health care for patients, Coonrod said.

Coonrod said transportation continues to be a major barrier for the homeless community seeking health services.

“It’s nice to have bus passes to give patients, but we don’t always have those,” she said.

Gass also said that transportation is a barrier to accessing health and mental health care.

“It’s difficult, especially when you are thinking about the homeless population,” Gass said. “Not only do they not have easy access to a car to drive to an appointment, they are having to carry everything they own. They may have a pet that may not be a service animal which makes additional difficulties in accessing heath care, attending wellness visits and other preventive procedures. It is something we need to be looking at.”

As the meeting wrapped up, the moderators were asked if there was anything they wanted the public to know about homeless people.

Welsh spoke first.

“We have no idea what these people have been through before we met them,” Welsh said. “We don’t know where they’ve walked, what circumstances have put them there.”

“We’ve got to be very careful on judging these people,” Welsh said, adding that it’s something he has been guilty of in the past. “Folks in the community, when you see a situation, don’t be so judgmental. You have no clue what these people have gone through.”

Gass agreed.

“The resiliency of these people — their stories are so difficult and somehow they seem to persevere and keep some optimism,” Gass said. “I think the answer is to look at these individuals who are in a difficult situation and difficult time and try to understand they are trying to do the best they can with the skills they’ve got.”

Coonrod wanted to remind the community that homeless people also have “hopes and dreams and desires.”

“We need to be compassionate, nonjudgmental and do what we can,” she said. “We all have hopes and dreams. But we have a home that’s got a roof, walls and a floor.”

Want to go?

The next Community Conversation meeting is 3:30-4:30 p.m. Nov. 21 at the Grace United Methodist Church, 600 S. Jefferson Ave. This meeting will be to discuss access to safe, affordable housing.

Following the meeting, participants will be encouraged to stick around and volunteer with Gathering Friends as they feed homeless people at the church.


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