Getting out in front of a problem
It was one of those sparkling moments when the world shifts, although I hardly knew it at the time.
I was working quietly in a small windowless office tucked away in the old courthouse. The door was closed per a deputy’s request as he shuffled felony prisoners into a nearby courtroom, but I jumped up to answer an insistent pounding on the door.
Standing in the hallway were two Reno policemen, in full winter regalia. After confirming my identity, the taller one said: “Anne Cory told us you could get us a truck.” Anne was United Way’s CEO at the time and a friend of mine, so I invited the officers into my tiny workspace where there was no room for them to sit down. I asked why they needed a truck, and they explained they were downtown bike cops and wanted transportation to pick up homeless drunks and drug addicts and take them somewhere to get help.
Knowing the answer, I asked where exactly they would drive the truck to connect people to treatment and housing. There was an uncomfortable silence. They admitted they didn’t know. We discussed the lack of options for people who cycled endlessly through Reno’s emergency rooms, jail, courthouses and the river corridor.
The two police officers were Patrick O’Bryan and Steve Johns, who later became the inspiration behind Malcolm Gladwell’s story, “Million Dollar Murray” (New Yorker, Feb. 13, 2006) which tracked the life of Murray Barr and his costly travails through Reno. The officers did an informal study of ambulance, hospital and jail costs associated with Murray, concluding “It cost us one million dollars not to do something about Murray.”
Over the next thirteen years, Patrick, Steve and I often laughed about the “truck to nowhere” as we worked together and with others to change how our community serves people with an addiction or severe mental illness. The alliance we forged that cold winter day led to better coordination between criminal justice and treatment systems, spawning a Triage Center, the Community Intervention Team (CIT) training for law enforcement, the Crossroads program offering transitional housing beds with wrap-around services, and the Mobile Outreach Safety Team (MOST), pairing a psychiatric worker with an officer to respond to unstable situations. They did get their “truck” eventually, when the Nevada Alliance for the Mentally Ill purchased a van for the MOST Team.
Fast forward to 2016. WestCare, a non-profit agency, now runs the Triage Center and has opened an outpatient office to provide direct services to this vulnerable population. O’Bryan and Johns have retired and moved out-of-state, but their legacy continues as community-based workers identify other needs and find practical solutions.
WestCare assistant director Mashal Malik told me about a client who has had several relapses on heroin. He appreciates the agency’s assistance in finding him housing and Medicaid, but he’s still jobless and tells her “I need to find a way to pay for things like dish soap, Fixodent (denture glue), trash bags, and toilet paper. I tried panhandling and then I moved on to selling heroin—but I can’t have it touch my hands and not use.”
WestCare has organized a community fundraiser at the Atlantis on April 23 to fix this solvable problem. Proceeds will fund transitional items needed to attain the independent life a real job offers. Tickets are $60 and can be obtained by contacting Malik (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Officer O’Bryan will be there to support the cause and speak of his own journey from bike cop on a mission to “clean up” downtown to his realization there is a better way to help the denizens of the alleys and park benches.
WestCare’s solution is there in plain sight. Let’s not spend another million dollars not to find it.