A survey last year found nearly 2,000 people are homeless on a given day in Indianapolis, and nearly 500 of them reported chronic substance abuse problems. Later this year, the city will open its first Engagement Center to serve as a safety net to engage those with chronic mental health and/or substance abuse issues. It’s estimated the new Reuben Engagement Center will save Indianapolis between $3 and $8 million a year.
Without a system to help homeless and indigent people with chronic mental health or addiction problems, Marion County ends up footing a massive healthcare bill when they end up in jail or the emergency room. An estimated 40 percent of inmates in the Marion County jail have mental health issues, and each day, jail workers administer 700 doses of psychotropic drugs. City County Councilor Leroy Robinson says it’s time for change.
“Almost half the people that are incarcerated we’re arresting have mental health issues," Robinson said. "And we have to find a way to treat them as opposed to incarcerating them and the Engagement Center will go a long way to meet that need.”
Robinson is right, says community organizer Rev. Juard Barnes. He lobbied this winter against the proposed Justice Center, which would have expanded the county’s jails. Barnes says the engagement center will help address the social problems of homelessness and addiction – not criminalize them.
“The Engagement Center is definitely on the right track for the way you can stop the over incarceration of people and cut down on having those huge number of people with mental health issues and addiction issues in places where they can actually get the kind of help that they need,” Barnes said.
Val Washington, deputy director of the Department of Public Safety says an arrest for public intoxication is costly for the county – and, for the arrestee, it can topple the first domino leading to financial hardship.
“When someone is arrested, they generally lose their health insurance benefits," Washington said. "Most people have a rider in their clause. And so, the sheriff’s office – and it’s really the duty of the county, but it happens to fall to the sheriff – is responsible for that arrestee healthcare.”
For several years, Washington has been working behind the scenes with Christy Shepard, executive director for the Coalition for Homelessness, Intervention and Prevention, and the CEO of Midtown Mental Health, Margie Payne, to make the Reuben Engagement Center a reality.
“And so, our thought was, if we can get people – and get them out of custody – to engage in services, one, we’re doing a benefit to them and us by keeping them out of the system, but two, we could potentially tap into other financial resources to help pay for those services,” Washington said.
An attempt in 2011 for an Engagement Center fell through when neighbors balked at the rezoning of the proposed site. The new location downtown is above the Arrestee Processing Center on East Market Street, so it doesn’t need to be rezoned.
The Reuben Engagement Center is to have 30 beds – 20 for the homeless to detox and 10 for people who come for help, whether voluntarily or an alternative to being arrested. Margie Payne of Midtown Mental Health says to make real progress with an addicted person they have to be ready.
“We will have paramedics who are gonna start vital signs, seeing if they’re going to go into detox or not. Starting medications if need be," Payne said. "There will be social workers there talking with them – making them aware of the services and providers that are out there.”
CHIP’s Christy Shepard says the Engagement Center will also help providers close service gaps and eliminate overlapping services – something she says will make a big difference for clients.
“We have people in our community that are already addressing these issues – but getting all the people at the table to make an even bigger and broader impact is really going to change how we start serving and not just shuffling people,” Shepard said.
Councilman Jeff Miller says other cities with engagement centers, such as Columbus, Ohio, report cost savings and a smaller jail population – as well as success in helping people find housing and employment.
“Even if this wasn’t saving money, it’s what we need to do. Because it’s a beautiful thing for this person to wake up and then be surrounded by professional services to really sit down to say, 'Let’s talk about next steps for you. What would you like in life? What can we do to help,'" Miller said. "Well, financially, it’s incredibly prudent. For me, it’s much simpler. It’s morally the right thing to do.”
In addition to the $500,000 from the city for first year operating expenses, Indianapolis attorney Lawrence Reuben has donated $750,000 from his parent’s estate to cover capital improvements. A working committee meets weekly now to prepare for the opening later this year of the Albert G. and Sara I. Reuben Engagement Center.