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CHD mental health director weighs in on Max Square concerns

Observer - 1/24/2022

Jan. 22—LA GRANDE — Recent concerns over homelessness in downtown La Grande have a number of entities looking for answers.

Mental health and homelessness often have a close-knit connection, prompting the Center for Human Development to take part in the ongoing discussion regarding the recent apprehension over disturbances in downtown La Grande and loitering at Max Square. As law enforcement faces certain legal barriers in focusing on downtown homelessness, CHD's mental health outreach efforts and approach to substance abuse could provide key services to assist in addressing these concerns.

"The Center for Human Development will continue to focus on addressing the mental health and substance use disorder needs of Union County including for those who are experiencing housing instability," CHD Mental Health Director Aaron Grigg said. "We acknowledge that while not all individuals experiencing housing instability have mental health or substance use challenges, we know that housing instability is a major barrier to stability in these areas."

Grigg noted that behavioral health challenges and homelessness are not always a direct link, but that homeless individuals often experience mental health problems.

Behavioral health emphasis

The Center for Human Development does not currently provide direct housing resources, but the organization supplies a number of services that can assist in providing a more stable living environment to those struggling with addiction and mental health issues — medication management, supported employment, mentoring, counseling, crisis assessments, substance use disorder treatment and outreach — and also partners with other local entities for emergency housing options related to homelessness. Community Connection of Northeast Oregon is one organization providing direct housing services, such as a houseless resource fair that is set to take place at the Union County Senior Center from 2-5 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 26 — service providers will be present and supplies, food, resources and other items will be available.

"CHD hopes to find ways to provide more outreach to those in the community including those who are experiencing behavioral health challenges, both mental health and substance-use related," Grigg said. "This includes those who are without stable housing."

Grigg took part in a downtown meeting with local business owners on Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021, hosted by La Grande Police Chief Gary Bell, City Manager Robert Strope, Parks and Recreation Coordinator Stu Spence and Economic Development Director Timothy Bishop. Business owners voiced their concerns over recent accounts of criminal activity and issues with crowds of homeless individuals, while city officials gave their input and provided an in-depth analysis of what the city is doing to prevent disturbances downtown as well as roadblocks in the way.

Bell and Grigg interchanged ideas and answered questions from the public, emphasizing that CHD and the La Grande Police Department are working together to utilize local resources. Grigg also said at the meeting that building relationships with homeless people is an important approach for CHD, noting that building trust can often be crucial when someone is in need of resources.

Bell stated that oftentimes homeless individuals refuse services offered by law enforcement, but that persistent efforts to create connections goes a long way they find themselves in need of assistance.

"We have more resources locally, in the span of my career, than we've ever had," he said at the downtown meeting. "But, we also have more social issues in the span of my career than we've ever had."

"Our hope is that through proactive, regular outreach efforts and providing some low barrier services those who are experiencing substance use and mental health challenges will begin to trust us," Grigg said. "Even if those individuals do not agree to services or assistance at the time, that relationship of trust developed over time will lead to seeking of services in the future. The hope is that when they are then ready to seek assistance they will go to those they trust."

New opportunities

While the Center for Human Development focuses primarily on mental health and substance abuse services, recent funding as a result of Measure 110 has opened the door for potential expanded assistance related to housing.

The 2020 ballot measure reclassified penalties for possession of controlled substances, putting an emphasis on addiction treatment and recovery. While the measure has limited law enforcement's reach in terms of drug abuse, the initiative increased funding for recovery centers and mental health organizations across Oregon.

CHD, along with community behavioral health programs in Wallowa and Baker counties, was awarded funding in August 2021 as a direct result of Measure 110 for the purpose of outreach to individuals struggling with substance abuse. CHD received six months of added funding for this specific cause, along with an additional six months due to COVID-19-related hiring difficulties across the state.

"These dollars are currently being used to expand the supported employment services and additional proactive outreach to individuals in the community experiencing substance use disorder," Grigg said. "We hope that CHD can increase outreach to all individuals experiencing substance use disorder, including those without stable housing."

Grigg also noted that CHD is in the process of applying for additional funds that would lead to collaborating with other local entities and increased efforts toward rental assistance for local homeless individuals. A portion of the funding, if granted, would be directed toward additional recovery housing units in Union County.

"If awarded additional M110 funding, CHD hopes to develop 24/7 Substance Use Disorder Mobile Outreach and Crisis Services. Teams providing these services would potentially include a mental health counselor, a certified alcohol and drug counselor (CADC) and a certified recovery mentor (CRM)," Grigg said. "A team like this would be available to respond 24/7 to individuals in the community experiencing challenges with substance use regardless of their setting."

Continued efforts

While law enforcement and the city are making diligent efforts to address housing instability in La Grande, mental health resources are viewed as a key approach to the recent concerns regarding Max Square.

At the city meeting in December, Strope noted that the city engages regularly with the League of Oregon Cities to collaborate with other cities and gather input from towns that may have similar concerns as La Grande moves forward. Grigg noted that available state resources could be more abundant as a result of Union County being a small county, and an increase in staff and funding through Measure 110 could lead to partnerships such as having mental health experts on call through police dispatch.

"CHD will continue efforts to find ways to improve housing options for those experiencing behavioral health challenges," Grigg said.

One way to access services is to call the CHD mental health crisis line at 541-962-8800, option 6.

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