MANSFIELD — A pilot program to help homeless residents in downtown Mansfield will launch in early April, featuring teams of behavioral health professionals and law enforcement officers.
Joe Trolian, executive director of Richland County Mental Health & Recovery Services, outlined the project Thursday during a meeting with Richland County commissioners and other officials.
Commissioner Tony Vero said last fall that officials noted an uptick in homelessness across the country, “particularly in downtown Mansfield and around the (Central Park) gazebo.”
Vero helped form a group to discuss the issues, including Trolian and Sharlene Neumann, executive director of Richland County Job & Family Services.
Other team members are Jennifer Kime, Downtown Mansfield Inc. CEO; Rebecca Owens, Catholic Charities Regional Director; Laura Montgomery, Catalyst Life Services CEO; Mansfield Mayor Tim Theaker; Jodie Perry, president and CEO of Richland Area Chamber & Economic Development; and Adrian Ackerman, Mansfield’s community development & housing director.
The result of the group’s efforts is a pilot program, expected to run through June 2023, aimed at identifying homeless residents, assessing their needs and helping to direct residents to assistance, according to Trolian.
“We are pretty proud of this pilot program,” Vero said. “We are not aware of any community in the country our size that is trying this. It may not work. We may not see success and we will have to pivot again.”
In the program, behavioral health professionals from Catalyst Life Services will start partnering with law enforcement officers during three, 4-hour shifts per week to contact homeless residents.
“We want to ask them what they need and then direct them to areas to receive that help,” Trolian said. “We want to use someone who is licensed … a licensed social worker, clinical counselor … because we’re not quite sure what we are going to get into.
“We are (operating) under the assumption people want help,” Trolian said, though he admitted some may not.
He said licensed behavioral health specialists can do diagnostic assessments, individual counseling, case management and more with the homeless encountered.
Trolian said the local Opiate Reponse Teams have had great success by involving law enforcement officers.
“They are great at getting people to come to the door and it shows police officers are there to help, not just arrest people,” Trolian said.
He said law enforcement officers, likely trained through the local Crisis Intervention Team program, will also provide safety for the mental health experts.
“We have a behavioral health professional who is not trained or equipped to handle much more than a verbal confrontation. Having a law enforcement officer there will help. We will be dealing with people we don’t know,” Trolian said.
The program will be done in two phases — April to the end of September and then October through the end of June 2023. Adjustments to the program will be made based upon data and results achieved in the first six months, Trolian said.
He said the project will compile data that could be invaluable to future efforts.
The cost of the program could be funded by a variety of local, state and federal sources, according to the group. Trolian and Montgomery said the cost for the behavioral health specialist will be around $101,250.
“Catalyst is certainly on board,” Montgomery said. “This is just a piece of the (homeless) issue, but we certainly have the resources and staffing to go out into the community to assist these individuals.”
The cost of the law enforcement officer is yet to be determined, though it could run around $35,000 plus benefits. The officers would be paid as a “private detail,” signing up outside of their normal duties.
“We are still fine-tuning costs and how we will will share in it,” Vero said. “I believe the dollars will be the easiest part with Mental Health, JFS, the county, the city … I am confident we will be able to fund this program.”
Theaker said he supported the program, though he said his understaffed police department may not be able to participate at the beginning. He said officers are stretched so thin now due to required overtime that they may not want to participate in the project.
Vero said the project could include Mansfield police, its auxiliary officers, Richland County Sheriff’s deputies or even law enforcement officers from other communities, such as Shelby and Ontario.
“We never go into a project saying ‘this can’t happen,'” he said. “We are hoping we can fill those (law enforcement) slots and we will include law enforcement heads in our next conversations.
“We will keep going down the checklist until we get the shifts filled,” he said.
Neumann said JFS, with access to federal Title 20 and TANF funds, has helped homeless projects and issues for 30 years. “We are financially committed to this project,” she said.
Kime and Perry said they were impressed with how quickly the project has come together. Perry said individuals involved have worked together in the past and those past relationships helped bring the pilot program together.
“We are excited to see how this goes and how it can help out the downtown and the community in general,” Kime said.
Owens said, “We are proud to be a part of this project. It’s very crucial. We are actively engaged with all of the partners at this table.”
The annual “Point in Time” homeless count, required by the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development to obtain grant funding, will be done on Feb. 22.