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Wednesday October 5th

Potential crisis diversion center to offer behavioral and mental health support

<p>Cars drive down Franklin Street on Monday, Oct. 26, 2020.</p>
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Cars drive down Franklin Street on Monday, Oct. 26, 2020.

A potential crisis diversion center in Orange County hit one of its first major milestones on Aug. 12, as architectural firms and crisis service providers submitted applications for their roles in the project.

The crisis diversion center would provide options other than incarceration or hospitalization for people experiencing behavioral or mental health issues. It will likely begin construction within the next two years, according to Caitlin Fenhagen, Orange County's criminal justice resource director. 

The Crisis/Diversion Facility Subcommittee under the Orange County Behavioral Health Task Force is leading the effort to develop the center. This subcommittee includes representatives from the Orange County Board of County Commissioners, Chapel Hill Police Department Crisis Unit, Orange County EMS and UNC Health Care, among others.

While the 24-hour center would mainly serve patients after interactions with law enforcement or emergency medical services, walk-ins would also be accepted.

The center will provide treatment and social services networking, as well as criminal justice and medical services. The Crisis/Diversion Facility Subcommittee used similar facilities in both Buncombe and Wake counties as a reference to determine best practices and treatments.

Consultants and partners for the facility will be chosen in the coming months, and a location for the building is scheduled to be chosen by December. The final design will be completed early next year, and Fenhagen said the facility might be operational in three years — although this is a tentative timeline.

"The facility will be purposefully designed to be very welcoming and very integrated into the landscape, wherever the site is," Deputy County Manager Travis Myren said.

In April 2019, more than 30 stakeholders from Orange County met to evaluate gaps in Orange County's criminal justice system. One issue discussed was the absence of a no-refusal intake service for law enforcement to divert those who may not be best served by incarceration or an emergency room.

The facility subcommittee was formed later in 2019 to develop a center that would fill the gaps the stakeholders identified.

Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue said the facility would be a great help to people who need it, as nobody would be turned away from getting help.

"This facility, when it exists, I think is the perfect compliment to all kinds of really smart programming that's been in place both in Chapel Hill and across our county for a long time," Blue said. "But we haven't been able to fully realize those philosophies because of the absence of such a facility."

According to a presentation from the subcommittee, about 400 cases could be diverted to the center each month, decreasing emergency room overcrowding and costs and helping to provide more appropriate services for patients other than the criminal justice system.

Fenhagen said the diversion center could help decrease the number of people taken to detention centers due to a lack of funding and other options. 

In addition to providing services within the facility, she said staff would also connect patients with other resources in the area. Street Outreach and Harm Reduction and Deflection Program, one such resource, helps people experiencing homelessness find housing and support.

The CHPD Crisis Unit, an organization of social workers who respond with law enforcement officers to calls, recently hired its first peer support specialist — a licensed professional with knowledgeable behavioral health experience. 

Fenhagen said the diversion facility would also be staffed by these peer support specialists, who may be able to help combat the stigma surrounding behavioral health. 

"Behavioral health concerns don't impact just people who are involved in the criminal justice system," she said. "It hits everybody regardless of your social status, of your age. It's just a constant struggle to educate everyone that that stigma shouldn't exist."

@ethanehorton1

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com


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