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Police Chief and Sheriff Support 'Wet Shelter' For Intoxicated Individuals, People with a Mental Illness who are Otherwise Booked in Jail for Petty Crimes

Top law enforcement officials say a type of shelter known as a "wet shelter” is needed to create space in the overcrowded Greene County Jail for serious, violent offenders. They want to open a secure facility to hold people who are homeless, individuals with a mental illness or intoxicated people arrested for committing a minor crime.

Because most homeless shelters don't accept anyone who is intoxicated, officers don’t have many options when they arrest someone for a petty crime. The Springfield police chief and Greene County sheriff want an alternative to jail time. “They are hitting the revolving door of the jail, if we just arrest them for being drunk and causing a disturbance,” Springfield Police Chief Paul Williams said.

Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott says homeless people or people with drug or mental health issues who commit minor crimes take up the same amount of space in the jail as a rapist or child molester. “If there is a mental illness, not only is there a trespassing issue there could be lewd conduct,” Arnott said. “It could be a person taking their clothes off in the library. We have to do something with that person.” He says booking them in jail is often not the best response.

Homeless shelters like the Victory Mission don't accept anyone who is intoxicated. “If you have a 145 people in your building, you’re responsibility is for those 145 people who are trying to stay clean and sober ,” Victory Mission Executive Director Jim Harriger said. “Bringing in four people who are drunk really messes up the whole concept.”

Often the only option is an arrest. The sheriff's office is using a $200,000 grant to try and stop the cycle of repeat offenders being booked who have a mental illness. “When we pick them up instead of just putting them in jail, a psychologist on staff interviews them,” Williams said. The psychologist determines if mental health or substance abuse assistance would be more beneficial than jail time for petty, repeat criminals. “It could be medication, it could be doctor's visits or counseling to get them on the right track,” Arnott said.

Officers identified 16 people with drug or mental health issues and entered them into the grant program. “Two or three went through the program and are no longer a problem for us. They are not a problem for the community,” Williams said. “Two or three others thumbed their noses at it and said ‘I like creating havoc.’”

“It's a wonderful idea but it comes down to the cash,” Harriger said. He says nearly every shelter in the city is currently full. Harriger says a "wet shelter” also requires more legal responsibility. “It creates a safety issue,” Harriger said. “People who are drunk are often volatile. You don't know what they will do.” Harriger considered opening a similar shelter back in the 1990’s but didn’t due to concerns about liability if someone had a heart attack or other possible injury. “We can't assume that type of liability,” Harriger said. “So who can?”

The sheriff and police chief say they are working with local mental health professionals and community leaders to try and find funding and a location for a secured facility.

Grant money will also fund training for both Springfield police and Greene County deputies. Early next month, officers will participate in training to identify signs of mental illness to divert those individuals from jail and instead toward the proper agency to address their illness.

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