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Something exciting happened at the March 28 City Council meeting.
In a unanimous vote, Council approved the allocation of $900,000 of federal COVID rescue funding to set up a “Living Room” to provide immediate care to people experiencing mental health crises. Here’s what that means and why it matters.
Our community, like many others, is experiencing a mental health crisis. It’s been going on for a long time, and the pandemic both demonstrated this crisis and severely worsened it, as countless people were separated from support networks and resources and put in truly devastating situations.
As we seek to address this, it is clear that Evanston, like almost the whole country, has major gaps in mental health services.
One acute gap is in appropriate places to bring individuals experiencing psychiatric crises. Because of this lack of services, two of the most common responses to these crises are dialing 911 or doing nothing at all. Certainly doing nothing guarantees that the individual in crisis gets no care. But calling 911 may not ultimately provide them with the care they need either. Often it results in police arriving – putting our officers in a completely impossible position of being asked to solve a massively difficult problem without the necessary tools and resources. Eventually the individual might be taken to an emergency room, which also isn’t properly equipped to solve most mental health crises, leading to a deeply painful experience for the person in crisis and a discharge back into the community with the problems exacerbated rather than solved.
This is a terrible cycle that benefits nobody, doing a disservice both to the individuals who need and are not receiving care, their families, loved ones, and friends, and the broader community. Whether you look at this from the point of view of justice, health care, public safety, or even cost-effectiveness, it’s a bad situation all around.
That’s where the Living Room comes in. It’s a free alternative to hospital emergency rooms whose staff include therapists, peer supporters, and more – helping people in crisis rest, relax, regulate, and ultimately access the suite of services they actually need. Whether individuals and their families hear about the Living Room and show up without prompting, or whether a guest arrives as a result of a deflected 911 call, this crisis response is designed to address root causes and establish a path to recovery.
There isn’t yet a Living Room in Evanston, but there exist a number across the state, including one that’s been operated in Skokie for a decade by a provider called Turning Point. Their record is frankly astonishing – they have hundreds of visits per year, and more than 98% of visitors are consistently diverted from requiring emergency room services. In addition to much-needed health care, the Living Room connects visitors to resources including shelter, transportation, food, employment, housing, legal assistance and more, based on an understanding that these needs can be inextricable from mental health challenges.
The Evanston plan that’s moving forward is to open a Living Room near Saint Francis Hospital. Turning Point will be the primary operator, but we’ll be building a version of this program that’s designed specifically for Evanston, in partnership with numerous other providers and local institutions, including PEER Services, Impact Behavioral Health and more.
This project will take continued work to come to fruition, and it will not end or completely resolve our mental health crisis. But it’s one critical step in closing the gap and making our community the just, compassionate, safe, and welcoming place we aspire to be. I’m truly grateful to all the community partners, City staff, and Council members who are doing the work to make this happen.
Mayor, City of Evanston