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New city project to unite emergency services, support groups for at-risk community members

Whatcom County is planning to implement a program intended to provide long-term solutions for Whatcom County citizens who are in frequent contact with emergency services, law enforcement, homelessness support programs and hospitals due to mental illness or substance abuse by December. The Ground-level Response and Coordinated Engagement project, or GRACE, will admit around 50 individuals at a time, based on name and face identification from police, hospitals and downtown business owners as a result of their frequent need for help, Anne Deacon, Whatcom Human Services Manager and GRACE project creator said. Once the individual has been signed on as an entity of the project, an intensive and coordinated response and intervention system will be designed for that specific person. This will be distributed to the participating professionals and response units. The project will provide care in cases of a crises, plus provide help to prevent future crises. Deacon believes it is our obligation as humans to treat mental illness, and with that mindset she initiated GRACE. “It takes a village to manage people who are disenfranchised, chaotic and challenged with a number of different problems,” Deacon said. At-risk individuals will be assigned a case manager from the county, called the “hub.” Providing a single case manager to handle the needs of an individual, rather than multiple case managers for different services, will increase the success of Whatcom County services, Bellingham Police Officer Jeremiah Smith said. Extending beyond this hub, a team will be assembled with emergency response units or police, as well as community members connected to the individual and any other social services they may be using, such as housing, Deacon said. In the event of a mental health or substance abuse crisis, teams will all have a role in the planned response, as well as preventative actions for future crises.   Establishment The GRACE project stemmed from the original priority of the Whatcom County Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force to expand the existing triage facility’s 13-bed unit to two 16-bed units. The Whatcom County Triage Center, opened in 2006, is a center for adults suffering with a mental health and substance abuse crises. The center provides an alternative route from jail or hospitalization, but requires voluntary admittance for those trying to get help according to the Crisis Triage Center’s website.

“[When individuals] are in distress, it's necessary to divert them from jail or the hospital and get them to the triage facility where we can provide intensive care and a connection to mental health services.”

Anne Deacon, GRACE project creator
“[When individuals] are in distress, it's necessary to divert them from jail or the hospital and get them to the triage facility where we can provide intensive care and a connection to mental health services” Deacon said. Deacon sits on the Whatcom County Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force. She explained one unit of the Crisis Triage Center would be designated for mental health crises and the other unit for detoxification and connection to services for substance abuse. Deacon identified a need for a more sustainable entrance-and-exit plan from the triage facility for its users. From there, the GRACE project was created. Deacon said the House capital budget is intended to contribute $7 million for the GRACE program. Another $2.5 million has been secured from North Sound Behavioral Health Organization. Since 2009, a percent of local sales tax has been set aside for behavior health services, the GRACE project included. This fund has now up to $3 million reserved for programs like GRACE. In order to launch the program by December, more funding must be obtained.   Planning Immediately after initiating the project, Deacon said she invited partners to create a planning committee. This committee was made up of members from the City of Bellingham, the Opportunity Council, the Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement and St. Joseph hospital. Deacon and the planning committee started the planning process with two forums. The first forum identified who the project would be serving and what was trying to be done. The second forum invited a diverse group of stakeholders such as Whatcom County health care providers, representatives from the hospitals, mental health and addiction services, law enforcement, the county and city prosecutor's office, members of the Lummi Nation and the Downtown Bellingham Partnership. The second forum proposed the details of the project to these stakeholders and explained plans for steps. The GRACE project was presented at the Downtown Bellingham Partnership’s safety meeting on July 11. Downtown Bellingham Partnership operations manager Marissa McGrath organized the meeting and is in support of the GRACE project. “There is so much being done all the time — in the background by our community leaders, by social service providers, caseworkers and law enforcement to try and support a better quality of life for everyone,” she said. McGrath said she takes pride in Downtown Bellingham Partnership’s role in informing the public about the work being done. Officer Smith was present at the meeting and responded to questions regarding law enforcement's involvement in the project. “I think the GRACE program is something that’s going to give law enforcement and first responders a tool to get people the help they need,” Smith said. Smith said he would participate in the project as a member of a team depending on the needs. The Catholic Community Services of Western Washington was involved in the development of the GRACE program during the first forum. Malora Christensen, Associate Director of Housing for Catholic Community Services of Western Washington, said the project is needed as an answer to the systemic frustration that many homeless encounter. Deacon said the GRACE project is similar to an Everett program called CHART, as it reproduces the synchronized efforts of several individuals from different services in an attempt to help one in need. After identifying the needs in Whatcom County, Deacon and the planning committee modeled GRACE on the coordinated efforts in CHART. The next steps for the project include finding the recipients of the program and identifying what resources are needed in the response plan. Secondly, finding software compatible with the project, Deacon said.

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