Each year, approximately one in five U.S. adults experience mental, behavioral or emotional disorders, and one in 20 experience serious mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Adults in a mental health crisis may call 911 for immediate support, but a Pew study shows that most 911 call centers are not equipped to handle behavioral crises.
Calling 911 is currently the only option for Evanstonians suffering from a mental health crisis who need immediate care, but another option will be available in the future.
In an 8-0 vote, council members at the March 28 City Council meeting approved spending up to $900,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds to establish a mental health “Living Room” in Evanston.
A Living Room is a welcoming and safe space for adults in a mental health crisis. Living Room staff members are trauma-informed therapists and recovery support specialists who help individuals calmly cope with the crisis and help prevent future crises.
The Living Room facility will be located at 311 Elmwood Ave. The property, currently a single-family home owned by Amita Health Saint Francis Hospital, will need renovations to accommodate the program.
“The wonderful thing about the space is it feels the way a living room is supposed to feel,” Ann Raney, Chief Executive Officer at Turning Point Behavioral Health Care Center, said at the council meeting.
The city will partner with Turning Point and St. Francis Hospital to establish the facility.
Of the ARPA funds approved for the program, the city will allocate approximately $224,250 to St. Francis Hospital for improvements to the building and $650,000 to Turning Point to operate the program.
The city will also collaborate with other providers, including Trilogy Behavioral Health Care and Impact Behavioral Health, to offer outreach services, addiction services, and housing and case management support.
Turning Point has operated a Living Room facility in Skokie for nearly 10 years. In the last five years, Turning Point says its Skokie facility has achieved a 99.2% success rate – meaning that out of the 1,483 total visits, in 1,471 cases individuals did not need to go to an emergency room.
Mayor Daniel Biss and Council member Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, pushed for the approval of ARPA funds for the project. Securing funding involved months of collaborating with community partners to establish a setting and a set of services to support those in need, Revelle wrote in an email to the RoundTable.
Security, space and funding questions
Prior to the vote, council members asked some questions about the plan.
Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, asked if there is a plan to manage the outside of the Living Room facility, alluding to behavior he has witnessed at Grey Park, located at Main Street and Ridge Avenue.
Raney said Turning Point has not yet discussed security with St. Francis Hospital, but the facility in Skokie has never any support outside its building.
“In 10 years, we’ve never had any difficulty with any kinds of occurrences outside of our building or adjacent to our building,” she said.
Biss noted that the proposed Living Room is not a residential site. Raney added that the facility is a drop-in center, open from noon to 8 p.m, and is not a shelter.
Braithwaite also asked whether Evanston residents would be prioritized at the facility.
The program will be designed with community input, especially those living nearest to the facility, Raney responded. She added that she looked at some statistics earlier that day, and noticed that since July 1, more Evanston residents have utilized Skokie’s Living Room than Skokie residents.
“When Evanston residents know that there’s a place here for them, I imagine that that’s where they’ll come,” Raney said.
In response to a question by Fifth Ward Council member Bobby Burns about the facility’s layout, Raney said the space includes a living room, dining room, kitchen, two bedrooms, bathroom, basement and an attic.
Raney said she has been lobbying staff at St. Francis to see if it would be possible to use some space in the hospital for larger group sessions.
Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma, 4th Ward, asked about how the facility will be funded in the long term.
Raney said hopefully community members will recognize the need for the facility and provide some funding. Evanston may receive some funding for a Living Room through the state, she said.
Interim City Manager Kelley Gandurski noted that local hospitals are interested in the facility, since it could alleviate the number of emergency room visits. Hospitals may be very motivated to ensure the facility’s success, given that it could create a significant savings in their costs, she said.
Public comments express support
Several community members spoke up in support of the facility during the public comment period at the start of the council meeting.
One of the speakers, Cindy Castro, is Manager of the Outpatient Behavioral Health Clinic at St. Francis and co-chair of Evanston’s Mental Health Task Force.
Although Evanston offers many resources, there are gaps, such as an alternative to an emergency room for those suffering from a mental health crisis, Castro said.
“The Living Room is a crucial and needed resource that right now residents do not have,” she said.
Another co-chair of Evanston’s Mental Health Task Force, Christine Somerville, works as the Program Director at National Alliance on Mental Illness Cook County North Suburban.
There are 23 Living Room facilities across Illinois, including the Skokie facility, Somerville said. Turning Point has the experience to support a similar facility in Evanston, she said.
“We hope the city will become a model for mitigating mental health crises, beginning with the Living Room,” Somerville added.
Another community member spoke on behalf of residents and parishioners from St. Nicholas Catholic Church and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. Both congregations are members of United Power for Action and Justice, a community organization in Cook County that works to create positive change.
United Power has been advocating for improved mental health systems for years, working to divert people in mental health crises from jails and supporting alternatives to emergency rooms, she said.
Studies show that facilities like the Living Rooms more effectively support people with mental health crisis than emergency rooms, she said.
She and other community members at St. Nicholas Catholic Church and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church support the plan “enthusiastically,” she added.
“We have an obligation as people of faith to implement proven alternatives to correctly steer the trajectory of the lives of people in crisis,” she said.