Louisville Metro Council passed a city budget for the coming fiscal year on Thursday evening that appropriates $325,000 to a new pilot program of Centerstone Kentucky, which seeks to divert those with serious mental health or substance abuse issues from jail and the emergency room, instead connecting them with services and treatment that would ultimately save tax dollars.

Centerstone Kentucky CEO Tony Zipple describes the Living Room Project as a clearinghouse of sorts, a welcoming place open 24 hours a day where people with serious behavioral issues can be personally connected to professional services and treatment. He says this cuts down on recidivism and the repetitive cycle of being thrown into jail or admitted into the ER, which is a great financial cost to the city and the overcrowded Metro Corrections facility. Officers would be able to drop off such people involved in minor infractions to Centerstone’s 708 Magazine Street facility instead of into the jail and court system, he adds.

“An officer that has a minor interaction with someone has some discretion on whether they get dropped off in jail and is processed in the court, or whether they get a warning and stay out of trouble,” says Zipple. “In those situations where it’s a minor thing like trespassing, this gives the officers an opportunity to say to somebody, ‘how would you like to be in a place where you can get connected to services and treatment instead?’ So we expect there to be a number of people who come in that way.”

Zipple adds that such clients will also be “handed off” to their facility when they are released from jail, as they are a few blocks from the jail and “it’s really easy for our staff to walk down to the jail and meet somebody, or for jail staff to walk somebody down to our location and get them connected to us so we can help them get connected to the right services.”

Centerstone Kentucky CEO Tony Zipple (middle) announcing a recidivism reduction program with Metro Corrections in 2016 | Photo by Joe Sonka

Instead of just receiving a referral for treatment or services, Zipple says they will get a tangible connection and introduction, with close access to therapeutic, vocational and psychiatric services during regular business hours. Staff at the project will also include peer specialists who have gone through their own histories of mental illness or substance abuse to make them feel welcomed and build trust.

“This is not just ‘you could benefit from this service, let me give you a phone number you can call,’ ” says Zipple. “We want to really make sure there’s a tight connection there. We’ll do follow-up to make sure the person got connected and that it’s working out, and if it’s not, we’ll work with them around another alternative.”

While he expects the police and jail to be the primary interaction for its pilot project, Zipple says some individuals will also be diverted from the ER in cases where they may not be in need of emergency medical treatment, as for some repeat visitors with substance abuse and mental health “it costs more than $1,000 to walk into the door of an ER.”

While Metro Government is appropriating $325,000 to Centerstone’s Living Room Project, the behavioral health care nonprofit had asked the city for $575,000 to fully implement their vision of the program, which may now have to be scaled back due falling $250,000 short of its goal.

In a May 31 presentation to the council’s public safety committee, Zipple said that a project fully funded by the city could divert 90 percent of people experiencing a behavioral health or substance abuse crisis from jail, ERs or inpatient hospitalizations. Serving 20-30 individuals per day, Zipple said the project could serve up to 9,000 annually, with the total annualized savings from diverted arrests, jail time, ER psychiatric services and inpatient hospitalization amounting to over $4 million for Metro Government, alone.

He also cited other cities around the country who have implemented very similar programs with great success at diverting such individuals away from jails and into services, such as Seattle, Skokie, Ill., and Ellendale, Del.

Zipple tells IL that he is very grateful to Metro Council and those members who fought to add in funding for the Living Room Project to the amended budget on Tuesday — in addition to the support from LMPD and Metro Corrections — but they’ll have to make a slight adjustment from what was originally proposed.

“We think we can modify this a little bit in terms of scale and starting time, so that we can use that as enough of a base to get a good demonstration going and everybody can see the value of it,” says Zipple, adding that while the start date of the project will be pushed back due to the appropriation not reaching their goal, “we would expect to at least have the beginnings of this on a small scale going before the end of summer.”