CEDAR RAPIDS — With two county departments headed to a new building, Linn County officials are aiming to create a campus that would include centers for people in mental health crisis and for those who are homeless and in need of services.
Linn County Supervisor Ben Rogers said the county has surplus mental health funds and now county-owned space to make the project possible.
“I think the term ‘when the stars align’ can be a little cliché and overused, but this is one of those examples,” Rogers said. “We came into a point in time where we had moneys available, and we now have space available because those organizations are moving into a new building.
“The two biggest issues — of how would we fund it and where would we house it — are now right in front of us.”
The space opens up later this year when Linn County Public Health and Youth and Development Services move to the new Percy and Lileah Harris Public Health building, at 10th Avenue and Seventh Street SE.
When the current public health building — at E Avenue and 13th Street NW — is vacated, the county is aiming to remodel it and create an access center — a place where people in crisis can be taken.
“It will offer an opportunity for hospitals and law enforcement to finally divert people who do not need to be hospitalized or incarcerated,” Rogers said.
The current youth and development services building, located immediately next door, will become a homeless resource center, with a day center offering a computer lab, lockers, laundry facilities, showers and assistance programs like job training and housing assistance.
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The space also could house a small number of permanent supportive housing units, Rogers added. The day center component would provide people a place to stay and take advantage of services during the day.
“They’re separate projects, but they are all interconnected in terms of helping to address mental health, substance abuse and homelessness,” Rogers said. “Instead of having these patchworks, we’re really going to try to coordinate it under one roof.”
Under one roof
Rogers said RSM consultants will present the plan Monday to the Linn County Board of Supervisors. The Linn County Community Services board on Friday recommended its approval.
Last year, supervisors approved using $3.5 million in mental health surplus dollars to renovate a building into an access center — similar to the one planned in Johnson County — and pay for the first year of its operation.
Phoebe Trepp, executive director of Willis Dady Homeless Services, said bringing so many services together in one place will greatly benefit those who need them.
Someone coming out of crisis intervention might be able to visit the homeless resource center or the Abbe Center for Community Mental Health, which is on the same block.
“What’s so exciting about this is it would really bring a lot of elements together,” Trepp said. “Ultimately, it reduces many of the barriers that our clients face.”
What’s more, Rogers said, the homeless resource center could finally provide a permanent location for a winter emergency overflow shelter.
“There will be permanency, finally,” he said. “The homeless groups will not have to scramble every fall to find a place for the overflow shelter.”
Jennifer Pratt, Cedar Rapids community development director, said it’s a challenge every year to find a suitable space for the overflow shelter.
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“It’s no problem writing the check,” she said. “The problem is finding the facility that’s safe. We struggle with that every year.”
Linn County Public Health could move into the Harris building as soon as September, with some elements of the access center or homeless resource center possibly opening yet this year.
Rogers said the campus plan still is in its preliminary stages, and officials hope to have a public meeting to share ideas and take questions from the those in the neighborhood.
An architect also will be sought to identify the buildings’ needs.
The Linn County Fillmore Center building, home to the Abbe Center for Community Mental Health, is in need of updates. The county originally planned to vacate the building but now that it fits into a larger plan, Rogers said building upgrades will take place, including roof repairs and accessibility needs.
Johnson County supervisors spent $1.35 million for more than five acres of land at 270 Southgate Ave., just east of South Gilbert Street, with plans of building an access center there.
Coralville, Iowa City and North Liberty city officials have agreed to help fund the facility’s operational costs its first year.
Both county efforts began before the state mandated the addition of at least six regional access centers in the state’s Mental Health and Disability Services regions to provide care for adult Iowans.
Citing a lack of direction from the state, officials in Linn and Johnson counties have said they will proceed with the county-level efforts to create access centers.
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