By Philip Haldiman, Independent Newsmedia
The RI International behavioral center in Peoria was pretty slow on a recent Monday. For a moment.
As the day progressed, clouds over the West Valley darkened and thickened and then rain began to fall. Next, Laura Green’s cell phone began to light up. And light up again. And again.
Ms. Green is an admissions coordinator at RI International, a 48-bed center that is ground zero in the West Valley for those who are suicidal, or have symptoms of substance abuse or mental illness.
The only other facilities of its kind in Maricopa County are located in central Phoenix and Mesa.
If a patient is not in need of medical intervention, this facility is where he or she goes. Think of it as an urgent care for behavioral care.
Ms. Green said the center is an alternative to the emergency room and often the first stop for a person living on the street — each year the center sees more than 4,000 patients in psychiatric crisis. The majority are homeless and most are dropped off by police officers.
In February, police dropped off about 350 patients, a record for the facility.
“We are the first line of defense in West Valley,” she said.
The organization has been an integral part in the Peoria Police Department’s homeless outreach program, launched last year.
On any given night in Maricopa County, more than 5,000 people experience homelessness, according to the 2015 Point-In-Time Count, in which more than 300 volunteers counted and surveyed the homeless staying in shelters and sleeping on the street, Feb. 24, 2015.
The population living on the streets in Peoria was 30, according to the count.
Police department spokesman Brandon Sheffert said the homeless outreach program and mission began February 2016 due to an increase in homeless population and an increase in citizen concerns.
Since the program began, officers reached out to 181 homeless individuals with offers of assistance, many living under the Loop 101 bridge and in other washes throughout the city. More than 10 were transported for involuntary psychiatric treatment and 20 agreed to voluntary psychiatric or rehabilitation treatment.
For many of these, their first step off the streets was at RI International.
Detective Lisa Scott, who is spearheading the outreach program, said it would be a very scary thought if RI International did not exist in Peoria.
Patients can get the care they need, and the staff is trained in de-escalation tactics if a patient becomes aggressive.
“If (RI) didn’t exist, we would have to drive to Phoenix, which would take more officers off the streets,” she said. “Their goal is get us back out onto patrol, and they are usually very quick, especially if someone isn’t acting out. I’ve been in and out in two minutes.”
First responders can take individuals directly to any door at RI International, and mental health providers can address concerns quicker than waiting in a busy emergency room.
About 3,400 of the 4,250 admissions in 2016 were police drop-offs, or nearly 80 percent.
Leon Boyko, CAO and chief of crisis for RI International, said law enforcement diversion is paramount to a successful behavioral health crisis system.
“Every law enforcement drop-off to one of our crisis centers means one less emergency room visit or arrest for someone suffering from a mental health crisis,” Mr. Boyko said.
Visits are generally one to three days, during which patients can receive medication, group therapy, crisis stabilization as well as referral for ongoing outpatient services. When a patient is discharged, a homeless shelter and transitional housing are options. There is at least one shelter in Peoria.
Rosalie Hernandez, program manager of Faith House, a domestic violence shelter within A New Leaf, said part of the problem is lack of housing to allow people to get back on their feet.
A New Leaf is a 46-year-old nonprofit that provides a broad spectrum of support services to help individuals and families in crisis. Last year, the organization served more than 22,000 residents across the Valley.
It provides the full continuum of care, with diagnostics and assessment, individual therapy, psychiatric services and after-care.
Ms. Hernandez said the Department of Housing and Urban Development cut $500,000 in funding for Faith House last year. The nonprofit was still able to continue care and did not have to turn anybody away, but was forced to re-purpose the program.
There are still transitional programs in the West Valley, such as Eve’s Place, they are just not funded by HUD, she said.
“We used to take referrals from all other emergency domestic violence shelters, and now we are unable to do so,” she said. “Not having transitional units now due to the cuts has caused us to not be able to provide more time for the women to transition out of the program into permanent housing.”
Detective Scott said fighting homelessness is a day-to-day battle with most people out on the streets because they have a mental illness or addiction problems.
On average, people with a serious addiction go into rehabilitation seven to13 times, which is a big hurdle, Detective Scott said.
“Addiction is a beast. A lot of them haven’t hit rock bottom, and I think it’s hard for some to understand that,” she said. “You need to create relationships with them and really get to know them, do some connecting and break through walls.”
Rather than handing out money to a panhandler, Detective Scott added, the best way to help the homeless is to contribute — donate time or money to help — to the various organizations that provide services to the homeless.
“It’s hard to get people to take the resources. Rarely do they take them the first time. They’ll tell us no. And some take the bus across town because they say the money is good in Peoria. And that makes it even harder for them to take our resources,” she said. “We’ve had success, but it is slow. It’s baby steps, but we still keep going. We don’t give up on them.”
Homelessness in Peoria
This article is the second in a series of two detailing the issue of homelessness in Peoria.
West Valley shelters
The Peoria police encourage citizens not to give money to panhandlers. Instead they can give them food or personal items. But the best way to help those who are homeless is to contribute — donate time or money to help — to the various organizations that provide service to the homeless. Here are a few in the West Valley.
Deep Within Recovery: a men’s shelter in Peoria that assists with re-integration for those coming out of incarceration and those who have substance abuse issues.
A New Leaf: Crisis shelter.
Streetlight USA: Woman’s shelter for domestic violence and human trafficking victims.
A New Life Center: Woman’s domestic violence shelter that accepts women with children including boys to age 18.
Phoenix Rescue Mission: A men’s and women’s shelter.