Columbia River Mental Health Services offers homeless health care to go

Columbia River Mental Health Services has launched the Mobile Health Team, a program that strives to remove barriers to accessing mental health services, drug and alcohol testing, and basic medical care for people experiencing homelessness.

From 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, the team leads a trip through Clark County with the goal of meeting people in need wherever they are.

By providing medical care and connecting people to resources, team members hope to build trust with the homeless community and ultimately connect people to resources you wouldn’t otherwise be looking for.

“Transportation is a huge barrier for some of these people. The safety and security of their property is a huge barrier,” said Mike DeLay, director of mental health services at Columbia Rivers, who helped design and launch the program.

“If we can do something small, like jump in the truck and get out and reduce that barrier and help them access the services they need to stabilize and work more effectively on other barriers that prevent them from getting housing,” he said, “we are not only helping the community, we are helping the community.” Our systems need to be more effective to serve those who need it most.”

The team is made up of five members: a peer with living experience to help build a relationship with the people the team encounters, a mental health therapist, a substance use disorder specialist, a nurse and a part-time provider who provides physical health care.

Delay explained that the program is designed to work alongside other resources and programs already available in the region.

“There is a really strong system to communicate and serve the homeless here in Clark County, and they all welcomed this new addition,” DeLay said. “Instead of duplicating what’s already there, what we’re trying to do is add an extra layer of service provision that can complement what’s already in the field.”

Ultimately, Columbia Rivers Mental Health Services hopes to expand the program to seven days a week in Clark, Colitz and Skamania counties. The Mobile Crisis Overnight team is also scheduled to launch in early 2022.

According to Delay, interest in this method of service delivery is growing nationwide.

“As long as I’ve been doing this work in this community, it’s something that has been identified as a need,” DeLay said. I don’t think this is unique in this region. It’s something I think is being seen all over the country. But we are just now starting to figure out how to implement it, ways to finance it, and then ways to make it sustainable.”

Thanks to the work of Columbia River medical officer Ann Willis, DeLay said, several community donors have provided financial support for the program, making its launch possible. These donors were essential, because funding a program like this isn’t always easy.

“Our management has done a lot of work in the background finding ways to fund a team like this, because it’s not a traditional billable service model,” DeLay said. “A lot of times, we are limited in the behavioral health field of a community by what we can actually get funding for, or what behavioral health services money is available for. It’s not always easy to get that funding, because there are a lot of programs that need to be support and that does a lot of really good work.”

day at work

Every day is different, according to mental health therapist Lauren Sanders, a member of the Mobile Health Team.

Sometimes there is a plan, and the team will head to a known camp to help out with the people they’ve worked with before. Other times, team members head to new camps to introduce themselves.

“We just allowed ourselves to be known,” Sanders said. “We introduce ourselves and explain what our services are and kind of connect with people that way. There is absolutely no pressure to talk to us. We are willing to talk to anyone, whether they are interested in the services or not.”

Sanders said the operation has been successful so far.

“For the most part, we’re able to connect people to services and give a little hope out there and put their feet in the door somewhere,” she said.

One morning, the team met someone at the camp who was interested in STD assessment and drug abuse treatment.

“When the customer is ready, he is ready,” Sanders said. “And for substance use assessments, sometimes that can take weeks for a schedule, and sometimes people lose that motivation to participate in treatment.”

The team was able to work with this client directly and quickly. Team members were able to provide an evaluation, and they connected the client to other services that day.

“It was really motivating,” Sanders said. Additionally, 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 sort 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 in the future.

“When you’re out there in their own world, and you talk to them, and you’re just in their area, they’ll move on and they’ll be more open with us,” he said.

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