Columbia River Mental Health Services has launched its Mobile Health Team, a program that strives to eliminate barriers to accessing mental health services, drug and alcohol screenings, and basic medical care for people experiencing homelessness.
From 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, the team drives through Clark County with the goal of meeting people in need where they are.
By providing medical care and connecting people with resources, team members hope to build trust with the homeless community and ultimately connect people with resources who otherwise wouldn’t seek them out.
“Transportation is a huge barrier for some of these folks. The safety and security of their belongings is a huge barrier,” said Columbia River Mental Health Services Director Mike Delay, who helped design and launch the program.
“If we can do something small, like just hop in the van and go out and reduce that barrier and help them access the services they need to stabilize and more effectively work on the other barriers that are preventing them from receiving housing,” he said, “not only are we helping the community, but we’re helping our own systems be more effective to serve those that are most in need.”
The team consists of five members: a peer with lived experience to help build rapport with people the team encounters, a mental health therapist, a substance-use disorder professional, a nurse and a part-time provider who offers physical health care.
The program is designed to work in conjunction with other resources and programs already available in the region, Delay explained.
“There’s a really robust system of outreach and homeless service provision here in Clark County, and they’ve all been very welcoming to this new addition,” Delay said. “Rather than duplicate what’s already out there, what we’re trying to do is add an additional layer of service provision that can complement what’s already in the field.”
Eventually, Columbia River Mental Health Services hopes to expand the program to seven days a week in Clark, Cowlitz and Skamania counties. A Mobile Crisis Overnight Team also is set to launch in early 2022.
According to Delay, interest in this method of service delivery has been growing nationwide.
“As long as I’ve been doing this work in this community, it’s something that’s been identified as a need,” Delay said. “And I don’t think that’s unique to this region. It’s something that I think is being seen across the nation. But we’re just now starting to figure out how to implement it and ways to fund it, and then ways to make it sustainable.”
Thanks to the work of Columbia River Chief Clinical Officer Anne Willis, various community donors provided financial support for the program, making its launch possible, Delay said. Those donors were essential, because funding a program like this isn’t always easy.
“Our administration has done a lot of work in the background to find ways to fund a team like this, because it’s not a traditional billable service model,” Delay said. “So often, we’re limited in community behavioral health by what we can actually receive funding for, or what there’s behavioral health service dollars available for. It’s not always easy to get hold of that financing, because there’s a lot of programs that need support that are doing a lot of really good work.”
A day on the job
Every day is different, according to mental health therapist Lauryn Sanders, a Mobile Health Team member.
Sometimes there’s a plan, and the team will head to a known camp to assist with people they’ve worked with before. Other times, team members head to new camps to introduce themselves.
“We just let ourselves be known,” Sanders said. “We introduce ourselves and explain what our services are about and just kind of connect with people that way. There’s no pressure to talk to us at all. We’re willing to talk to anybody, whether they’re interested in services or not.”
So far, the process has been a success, Sanders said.
“For the most part, we’re able to connect people to services and kind of provide a little bit of hope out there and to get their foot in the door somewhere,” she said.
One morning, the team met someone at a camp who was interested in STD assessment and substance-use treatment.
“When a client is ready, they’re ready,” Sanders said. “And for substance-use assessments, sometimes that can take weeks to schedule, and sometimes people lose that motivation to engage in treatment.”
The team was able to work with that client directly and quickly. Team members were able to provide an assessment, and they got the client connected with other services that day.
“That was really motivating,” Sanders said. Plus, once other people living in the same camp saw that the team was able to help, trust was established and more connections were made.
“Once one person starts that ball moving, you see the rest of the community kind of follow and be more accepting and open to talking to us,” Sanders said.
Peer specialist and Mobile Health Team member Reinhardt Ryan agreed. He said meeting people where they are builds trust and helps establish relationships that can lead to treatment down the line.
“When you’re out there in their own world, and you’re talking to them, and you’re just in their zone, they just will go ahead and be a lot more open with us,” he said.