Butler County’s homeless problem: Would a new drop-off center be enough to help?

John Thomas, left, makes adjustments Sunday to a cart he planned to pull behind a bicycle to remove his possessions from a homeless tent camp behind Hamilton Plaza. MIKE RUTLEDGE/STAFF

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John Thomas, left, makes adjustments Sunday to a cart he planned to pull behind a bicycle to remove his possessions from a homeless tent camp behind Hamilton Plaza. MIKE RUTLEDGE/STAFF

Continued discussion about a debated homeless and mental health addiction crisis intervention drop-off center drew a packed Butler County Commissioners chambers on Thursday.

The immediate issue is whether the commissioners will invest $150,000 in Community Development Block Grant money renovating a wing at the Transitional Living, Inc. facility on Princeton Road for the center. The facility would, in part, provide a place for police to take those in need of treatment or aid.

Commissioners Don Dixon and T.C. Rogers last month moved the money earmarked for the facility over to fix the parking lot at the Care Facility because they said they didn’t have enough information and the location concerned them.

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At the Thursday work session, they learned the Mental Health and Addiction Recovery Services board is committed to matching the commissioners’ contribution for the renovation. They also were concerned about who would pay for operating the program. Scott Gehring, CEO of the Community Health Alliance, estimates it will cost $1.3 million, and Medicaid should pick up about $1.1 million.

Gehring said his company has an $11 to $12 million annual operating budget, and this program would become part of its expenses. He said it has cash on hand to cover those expenses while waiting for revenues like Medicaid reimbursements to come in.

The facility sits on the border between Hamilton and Fairfield Twp., and township trustee Shannon Hartkemeyer agreed the service is needed. But she added that there is a neighborhood next to the TLC building, and officials have safety concerns.

“We would be concerned that both people going in, intake and people leaving, that could cause an issue for our residents,” she said. “We want to make sure that the security system would be study enough so that our residents are protected… We just want to make sure there are some safeguards in place.”

Gehring said there would be a plan for transporting those who leave the facility, and it would have off-duty police officers on site.

The commissioners were told there are about 500 homeless people in the county now. Dixon said he can’t fathom how a 16-bed facility can help a population of that size. Gehring said with an average stay of three days, 540 patients could be helped by the service over six months.

Dixon said the county needs a much bigger solution that encompasses not only triage service contemplated here, but a coordination of services the people need after the crisis period passes.

“We’ve got to take a look at the big picture and see if there’s not some way we could go to the governor and say, ‘Look, this is something that’s never been done before,’” he said. “It’s still $25 million, but look at how many people it can affect.”

Gehring said a consolidated solution could take years to implement. Commissioner Cindy Carpenter added this proposed crisis center is just “phase one” of the bigger solution.

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Ron Connovich, president of Fort Hamilton Hospital, said opening the crisis intervention center is “a step in the right direction” but the comprehensive approach is necessary.

“I think if we don’t address the full continuity of care for the patient from the beginning to the end, with intensive outpatient and other things, we do see the same patients over and over,” Connovich said. “So we’re not solving the problem unless we can get them out of the system.”

After the meeting, Dixon told the Journal-News if the Mental Health and Addiction Recovery Services board votes to contribute $150,000 and Gehring works with Fairfield Twp. to address its concerns, he’ll reconsider the county’s contribution for a pilot program.

“I think everyone is on board, everyone wants to fix it,” he said. “But we don’t want to put money where we don’t know where it’s going, we don’t want to put money in to help build something that’s not in the right place and community doesn’t want. We want to make sure it has a real benefit for the citizens.”

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