116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — CommUnity Crisis Services and Food Bank will receive nearly $1 million from the city of Iowa City to expand its Mobile Crisis Outreach program due to the increased need for mental health services during the pandemic.
City Council members this week — citing the need and urgency — unanimously approved a $939,082 grant from federal pandemic relief funds to increase the nonprofit’s ability to handle crisis calls.
The money will allow Mobile Crisis Outreach to add three full-time counselors, acquire eight vehicles and remodel a portion of the former food bank on Gilbert Court for use by mobile crisis teams.
The expansion is in line with the city’s preliminary plan to restructure the Iowa City Police Department and divert certain calls for service from the police.
Sarah Nelson, CommUnity’s chief executive officer, told the council the expansion will cut the crisis team’s response time in half in Iowa City and increase the nonprofit’s capacity to meet current needs.
“We are seeing just tremendous increase in need of mental health for youth and adults, (which) is anecdotally very apparent that it is tied to the mental health fallout from the pandemic,” Nelson said.
This is the first expenditure of federal pandemic relief funds by the Iowa City Council, Assistant City Manager Rachel Kilburg said.
The city was given $18.3 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding. After public input last summer, city staff presented emergent and long-term funding priorities to the council in September.
Expanding mental health services was one of the top suggestions from the community, Kilburg said.
People across the country are experiencing increased anxiety and depression during the pandemic.
The Mobile Crisis Outreach program has operated since 2013 in Johnson and Iowa counties, according to the funding proposal from CommUnity. The program, Nelson said, has seen a 506 percent growth from 2015 to now.
"I think a lot of that is because with word-of-mouth people start to learn that this is a service that's available, and we've been working really hard on outreach in the last year with the pandemic and state of mental health to make sure that people know we exist for everyone,“ Nelson said.
Mobile crisis teams operate 24/7 and help youth and adults experiencing a mental health crisis. The teams work closely with the GuideLink access center, hospitals, schools, law enforcement, mental health providers and local nonprofits.
In 2015, mobile crisis was averaging 12.5 calls per month, Nelson said. In 2018, the average was 60 calls per month.
“The last six months have been averaging 76 calls per month, but … the last two months have been at 100 calls per month, which are record numbers for mobile crisis,” Nelson said.
About 80 percent of all responses occur within the Iowa City limits, Nelson said.
Decreasing response time is one of the priorities that will be addressed in the expansion, Nelson said.
That response time is now 33 minutes in Iowa City. With more staff and vehicles, that time could be cut to an average of 15 minutes, Nelson said.
Having a fleet of vehicles will allow counselors to pick up a vehicle at the start of each shift so they are able to respond to a call at any time rather than reporting to the office to obtain a vehicle.
The funding proposal stated that individuals, school administrators or law enforcement could be more likely to call mobile crisis if they know the team can get there faster.
Nelson said 90 percent of the calls the team made last year ended without a trip to the hospital or jail. About two-thirds of the calls were stabilized on the scene without any further services, she added.
The proposal also noted workforce challenges and high turnover of mobile crisis counselors. It emphasized the need for competitive pay to recruit and retain counselors.
Adding three full-time counselors will “create dedicated positions on each shift to increase quality and responsiveness,” the proposal said.
The funds also will help remodel the former food bank, 1121 Gilbert Court, to create a central location, private meeting space and private office space. This will save about $50,000 in operating expenses each year, which can be used toward vehicle or personnel expenses, according to the proposal.
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