BELLINGHAM - In an effort to improve downtown and Maritime Heritage Park, Bellingham groups are trying to give people with mental illnesses and substance abuse issues better access to housing and health care. They also plan to put some people who commit minor crimes into mental health programs, rather than sending them to jail.
As part of those improvements, the park soon could be updated with better lighting and security cameras, Bellingham Municipal Court could open a mental health court later this year, and the Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement is currently running a program that provides links between agencies that often do not or cannot speak to one another about patients that pass through each of their doors.
Those three projects are on a list of 14 recommended to the city in March by the Community Solutions Workgroup. The group was convened by Mayor Kelli Linville in October 2013 and included city representatives, the state Liquor Control Board, the county health department, business and property owners, and social service groups.
PLANNING FOR MARITIME HERITAGE PARK
The workgroup report states the challenge with Maritime Heritage Park is at least in part that it "has frequently been referenced as a location that citizens avoid because they feel unsafe or are otherwise uneasy."
The park hugs Whatcom Creek and part of the downtown waterfront.
Due to its proximity to many downtown services, such as drop-in centers and the Lighthouse Mission, the park is popular with homeless and transient adults.
A small number of people actually live in the park. It is not uncommon to see drug or alcohol consumption throughout the day, and substance abuse excludes users from most shelters.
"The problem with Maritime Heritage is it's kind of in between," Bellingham Police spokesman Lt. Bob Vander Yacht said. "It's a great resource for people that need (support) services, but frequently those contacted in a park camping after hours either tried to get into the Mission and were turned down because of inappropriate behavior or they're not willing to go because the rules are stringent.
"You can't drink and go check into the Mission at the end of the night," Vander Yacht continued. "If people are stuck in their addictions, it's very difficult for them to get that shelter that the community would think is more appropriate."
In the 2015-16 budget proposal, the mayor plans to add funding for improvements to Maritime Heritage that could include lighting, benches, security cameras, emergency call boxes and other items called for in the park plan developed in 2013. The park's plan also calls for a new playground.
High-priority safety improvements, such as guardrails, lighting, signs and pruning vegetation for better visibility, could be completed in the next few months, said Vanessa Blackburn, city communications manager.
All improvements to the park would be done while keeping in mind the impacts on those who already use the park, many of whom are adults and homeless, Linville said.
"We will not displace people without a plan," Linville said.
The workgroup's report also calls for additional programs, concerts and events in the park, as well as increasing the presence of social services and adding enforcement. The report tentatively plans for programs to roll out through 2017, with funding coming from the city and the Parks and Recreation budget.
The Downtown Bellingham Partnership will host a National Night Out against crime in the park from 4:30 to 7 p.m. Aug. 5, partnership executive director Patrick Hurley said. The event will include music, food vendors and games, with the feel of a picnic. It will be open to all who are interested.
"It's designed to get neighbors to come out and do something outside, get to know each other, and increase awareness of what's going on in the neighborhood," Hurley said. "We're doing that at Maritime Heritage Park this year to help people become aware of the park and what it has to offer."
Other upcoming activities planned for the park include the Community Food Co-op's 17th annual Community Party from noon to 3 p.m. Aug. 17 and a guided tour of the city's waterways with Bellingham Public Works employees Sept. 5.
The city also will call for proposals for use of the public building toward the front of the park, Blackburn said. Some ideas thrown around were to use the building for art space or a commercial lease, like a coffee shop.
On a day-to-day basis, Whatcom County's mental health, law enforcement and emergency medical professionals interact with a small group of the county's most in-need residents whose service calls can make up a disproportionate amount of all health care and emergency costs.
About 50 or 60 people with complicated mental health issues or illnesses tend to make multiple contacts with police, use emergency medical services more often, and make numerous emergency room visits, Blackburn said.
Over the last two years, WAHA has developed an intensive case management program to help those community members with especially strong needs.
"The idea is if we support them with a team, and intensive case management, we can help them better access services," Blackburn said.
No single system in the county is able to address all of the needs someone may have, and due to privacy laws many of them cannot share necessary information with one another, WAHA Deputy Director Elya Moore said. That's where WAHA's new intensive case management program steps in.
"The health care system is not really set up to care for those people with serious, complicated needs," Moore said. "They have behavioral health issues, including substance abuse, mental health needs, physical health needs, including diabetes and coronary disease, and they might be homeless and in need of vocational training and housing."
Operated out of WAHA, the service focuses on getting consent to share information between service providers and helping ensure patients make it to appointments, get housing, and receive care they need.
"If they need a psychiatrist, we get them to see a psychiatrist," Moore said. "If they need better management of dialysis, we will make sure they get there."
The service is shared among the Whatcom Homeless Service Center, the Whatcom County Health Department, Whatcom County Jail, PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center and Catholic Community Services, Moore said.
So far, with about 19 enrollees, WAHA estimates tens of thousands of dollars have been saved each month in health-care costs alone since the program started in December 2013, Moore said.
WAHA is still looking at a way to capture data for the criminal justice system to estimate the total cost for each patient.
CREATING MENTAL HEALTH COURT
The city is in talks with the county to create a mental health court that would manage cases of criminal activity where mental health issues are suspected to be at play. Rather than sending those offenders to jail, they might be evaluated for mental health issues and connected with services, Blackburn said.
As soon as this fall, Bellingham Municipal Court could start a mental health court program. On Tuesday, July 22, Whatcom County Council will be asked to vote whether or not to provide funding for a court program manager.
Bellingham would staff the court and provide administration, said Municipal Court Commissioner Pete Smiley, who spent the last two years spearheading the effort along with Anne Deacon, human services manager for the county health department.
"Over time, we've seen gradual increases in the frequency of mentally ill defendants in municipal court," Smiley said. "It used to be more of a rare occurrence, and now it seems every week we see somebody who is suffering from mental illness."
The mental health court would attempt to address problems that may contribute to criminal behavior, like access to housing, substance abuse treatment and behavioral change therapy, Smiley said.
"We're treating the whole person, and that is very much a change to the traditional approach to probation services," Smiley said.
Under the current system, a person in custody may need to wait for six weeks or more to go to Western State Hospital for a mental health evaluation, Smiley said. Hopefully, with a qualified mental health professional serving as program manager, that person might be seen within a week and wouldn't have to leave the county, he said.
If the program manager position is approved, the court will start working on the criteria used to allow someone to go through the mental health court, Smiley said.
Other mental health courts have shown marked success, including King County's program. A case study by Washington State University's John Neiswander looked at the court's first five years of operation. The 2004 study found that among those who graduated from the mental health court program a year earlier, violent offenses had decreased by 87.9 percent, jail time had decreased by 90.8 percent, and the total number of offenses committed decreased by 75.9 percent.