Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier’s annual State of the County address lasted just more than 30 minutes but touched on key successes and also challenges facing the region in the coming year, largely involving under-represented, homeless and marginalized residents.
To support veterans, for example, the former Naval officer announced that the county has partnered with the Cohen Veterans Network to open a facility that would provide treatment for veterans of the war on terrorism and their families who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders and other mental health challenges. The nonprofit clinic will open in Lakewood later this summer.
“At this clinic, if a veteran is struggling with PTSD, they can get help – regardless of insurance or ability to pay,” Dammeier said to the gathering of federal, county, city and tribal representative at his address in the County-City Building last Wednesday. “If a veteran is in crisis, they can get in that same day for treatment.”
The clinic comes after last year’s partnership with the WestCare Foundation and Washington Department of Veterans Affairs that started the Betsy Ross Project at the Washington Soldiers Home in Orting to help women veterans experiencing homelessness connect to services.
“Of course, it’s not just veterans who need access to high-quality behavioral health care,” Dammeier said, noting that a county-wide health study found that one in five residents meet the criteria for having some sort of mental health disorder. “Fundamentally, our strategy is to be proactive, intervene early, and get people connected with the most appropriate treatment option for them.”
That effort often means going where the people with disorders are rather than waiting for them to connect to services on their own. To that end, the county started the Mobile Community Intervention Response Team of mental health and human services professionals who travel in mobile vans to meet people in crisis, whether with mental health issues or drug addictions.
“When people need emergency help, they call 911,” he said. “When people need non-emergency help, a lot of them still call 911. And when a fully loaded fire engine responds to these non-emergency calls, it’s not good for anyone. That’s where the MCIRT comes in. …Once we started the MCIRT, these calls dropped to about 40 a month – a 60 percent reduction. This represents a massive savings of time for our first responders and more appropriate care for the callers.”
The county also received millions in grant dollars to help divert people battling with mental health issues away from jail and into treatment programs by pairing deputies with mental health professionals as they respond to people in crisis.
Another strand of the mental health safety net is also on the way, Dammeier said, noting the new crisis stabilization center in Parkland/Spanaway is set to open next year. The center is expected to treat about 2,000 people a year when it opens.
“With opioids ravaging our communities, we can’t build this center fast enough,” he said. “We are experiencing something Councilwoman Pam Roach has rightly declared an opioid epidemic. … Fortunately, we have a group of local leaders taking on this challenge. My thanks to Councilmember Derek Young for co-chairing a task force focused on this issue, and for his active involvement in developing recommendations for what we must do to stop this epidemic.”
Dovetailing into that crisis is the rising number of people experiencing homelessness, he said, pointing out that the county’s point-in-time homeless count earlier this year found 1,628 county residents living without stable housing. Nearly 900 of them lived in area shelters and another 750 struggled on the streets.
“Each one of these folks has their own story of how they became homeless,” he said. “And because the causes of homelessness are varied, our solutions must be too.”
Sometimes it might be because someone lacks a security deposit for an apartment, or someone has fled violence at home or he or she can’t find dependable employment. One new initiative to help solve that is set to begin this summer. The Homeless Empowerment Labor Program, or HELP, is modeled after a program in Albuquerque that started as an effort to end panhandling. HELP will provide people experiencing homelessness with a job for the day. When the workday is over, workers receive their pay and can also access other services such as job training and counseling.
“It’s all about helping people help themselves,” Dammeier said.
In further remarks, he announced a proposal to create a new memorial in Pierce County to honor law enforcement and firefighters killed in the line of duty.
“The national law enforcement memorial is a fitting tribute to our fallen officers, but it shouldn’t take a special trip out of Pierce County to pay our respects,” he said. “To honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, Council Chair Doug Richardson and I propose we create our own public memorial in Pierce County for law enforcement officers and firefighters killed in the line of duty. … We must never forget.”