In the community

Lifeways gets major state funding to establish new crisis center in Ontario

A major Malheur County mental health provider will receive nearly $6 million to open a first-of-its-kind behavioral crisis center.

State Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, announced that Lifeways in Ontario was in line to receive $5.75 million for construction of a medical center in Malheur County.

According to Steve Jensen, Lifeways chief executive officer, the money comes from House Bill 5204 to build a medical detox and mental health respite center.

Jensen said the funding in the bill allocates more than $211 million for public safety and behavioral health across Oregon.

The funding in Malheur County will be used for construction costs to build a facility to address mental illness and drug addiction.

According to the text of the bill, the facility would be called the Ontario Medical Plaza. Additionally, the legislation is aimed at the mall.

“Moving this community proposal forward quickly will be a critical step toward addressing the needs of the county.”

–Steve Jensen, Lifeways CEO

In what Jensen dubbed as a “game changer” for the county, the facility will allow Lifeways to partner with a medical primary care provider at one of three locations.

“Our plan is to create a one-stop-shop for mental health and substance use treatment for people struggling with mental health and substance use disorder,” Jensen said.

Jensen said the funding development is so recent that the organization has not identified partners or a location to establish the facility. The facility will be a first in Malheur County and will give law enforcement an alternative to jail for non-criminal issues for people suffering a mental health crisis, Jensen said.

Malheur County District Attorney David Goldthorpe said he has been “fighting” for such a facility in the county for nearly a decade for people in the throes of addiction or experiencing a mental health issue. These are people, he said, who have gotten “out of control” but pose no immediate threat to public safety.

Currently, police have no other option than to put these individuals in jail, or, in some instances, deliver them to Saint Alphonsus Medical Center’s emergency room. There, they occupy a bed and staffing that could otherwise be going to someone who is in a true health emergency.

Sarah Poe, director of the Malheur County Health Department, said the department supports the behavioral health crisis center and “appreciates Lifeways for making it happen.”
Poe said the health department looks forward to partnering with Lifeways once the facility is open to support its “success.”

With no established timeline for the facility’s opening, Jensen said Lifeways has options regarding its location.

Those include renting space at the primarily empty Westpark Plaza Mall. He noted that the long-abandoned buildings would allow Lifeways to partner with other providers, such as medical or dental services. According to Jensen, the only drawback with the 120,000-square-foot location owned by an out-of-state investment company is that it would require remodeling of the buildings.

However, he said, the mall would allow Lifeways to house both its medical detox and mental health respite center and beds in one location. Then, he said, the location could provide residential and supportive housing for people in treatment and space for other medical providers.

Other options include building a new facility on a vacant lot the organization owns near its current location or, he said, in the state Department of Motor Vehicles building it owns that is also near its main location on Sunset Drive just south of Southwest Fourth Avenue.

He said the new facility’s location would be decided in about a month by the Lifeways Board.

“Moving this community proposal forward quickly will be a critical step toward addressing the needs of the county,” Jensen said.

Jensen said Lifeways’ priority is to offer the mental health respite center and medical detox. That, he said, has been the organization’s priority this year.

The state funding, he said, is “a good start.” The nonprofit initially asked the state for over $12 million for the construction of the facility.

Lifeways is expecting to receive federal funding that the organization pursued through U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden. Jensen said that money would also be used for the construction of the facility.

Goldthorpe said the funding is a step in the right direction for Oregon to address addiction and mental health. According to Goldthorpe, the state lags behind others in mental health and drug abuse treatment.

“For as progressive and opened minded Oregon tries to claim to be,” he said, “the money wasn’t going where their mouth was.”

Like many areas in Oregon, facilities have been pushed to the brink with people needing mental health help. Local leaders hope the facility will alleviate the pressure.

Goldthorpe said he sees the crisis center helping the judicial system in Malheur County.

When someone has not caused harm to others, authorities could choose not to file criminal charges on “petty events” if those involved agree that getting someone help is the best option, Goldthorpe said. These could be instances of vandalism or obstructing traffic and other victimless crimes, according to Goldthorpe.

However, Goldthorpe added, the county will continue to prosecute cases where there are victims.

“If there are victims involved who need restitution and who need a day in court,” he said, “that will always happen.”

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