New ‘triage center’ to provide services to the mentally ill
A new Triage Center and Low Demand Shelter in Fort Myers was opened on Friday morning to address the growing need of mental health services and the issue of overcrowded jails in Lee County.
The center, located at the Ruth Cooper Center on Ortiz Avenue, is an alternative for law enforcement officials looking for a place to bring someone they have just arrested or picked up. Any person identified as having a behavioral health crisis can be brought to the center instead of to jail.
Advocates and local elected officials have been working diligently on securing the funds for the center.
“We have to place the money on the front end,” said Larry Hart, a board member of the Florida Substance Abuse and Mental Health Corporation who worked alongside Lee County Commissioner Bob Janes in securing funds for the project. “Down the road there is jail and that jail will be filled. We can’t keep building jails.”
The facility was made possible by teamwork among the Department of Children and Families, the FSAMHC, the Board of County Commissioners, Lee Mental Health, Lee Memorial Health System, Southwest Florida Addiction Services, The Salvation Army and United Way.
The county commission and other organizations submitted an application to receive a grant from DCF in 2007 that would fund the new center. They were later selected to receive the grant which doles out $1 million grant over three years to operate the triage center and shelter.
The other organizations involved in the project are contributing $750,000 annually to match the grant and continue the program.
Throughout the opening ceremony on Friday, Janes was credited with bringing awareness to the issue of mental health. He currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Florida Partners in Crisis and is an ex-officio member of the FSAMHC.
“Its purpose is to reclaim a life in crisis and make that person into a healthy individual,” said Janes. “Saving one life at a time is what it’s all about.”
Law enforcement officials, represented by Major Doug Baker at the ceremony, pointed out that they deal with mental illness on a daily basis. And having this facility will decrease the amount of time an officer is away from patrolling the community.
“They aren’t sitting here occupying a seat while the arrestee gets processed,” said Janes. “We’ve had 23 visitors so far and no police car has been in the facility for longer than 20 minutes.”
Individuals who may be targeted for the center would be those that are under suspicion of committing a minor ordinance violation or non-violent offense such as disorderly conduct, prowling or trespassing. They would be those who are experiencing homelessness, problems with substance abuse and mental illness.
Meg Geltner, general manager of The Salvation Army of Lee and Hendry Counties, read a testimony of the center’s first recipient, a man named Neil. He had degrees in chemistry and chemical engineering, but spent eight years living on the streets of Fort Myers after a series of tragedies altered his life. He credits the center with helping him to reclaim his life and he is currently searching for a job.