Travis County working on mental health diversion projects

Travis County

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Travis County commissioners are looking at several ways to provide resources to people experiencing a mental health crisis, so they don’t become tangled up in the criminal justice system.

Roger Jefferies, who does public safety for Travis County, gave commissioners an update Tuesday on how long it would take to add mental health diversion services to those already provided by the existing Sobering Center. You can see the rough timeline below.

Sobering Center/Mental health diversion pilot
A timeline for the mental health diversion pilot program being worked on by Travis County (courtesy Travis County).

“The timeline should give us, as a court, some sense of what it takes to do a pretty narrowly-defined pilot project with an existing operating center that has a lot of the pieces in place already,” Commissioners Brigid Shea said.

What the pilot would do

A diversion program aims to connect people with resources instead of sending them to jail or the hospital. The pilot program would branch off of existing diversion services at the Sobering Center, which already provides diversion services for intoxication.

“There’s a couple ideas or concepts of where this might go,” Travis County Judge Andy Brown told KXAN prior to a work session last week. “I see this as a plan, or sort of a work in progress, over the next year or so to figure out exactly what our community wants and our community needs.”

Inside the Sobering Center
A virtual tour of the Sobering Center shows the setup of recovery beds and resources (Google Images).

One of the biggest concerns from commissioners on this item has been housing people who are experiencing a mental health crisis.

“Right now for a lot of people diversion means out of jail and onto the street, and that is not acceptable and that does not serve the community well,” Commissioner Jeff Travillion said in a June 15 meeting. “We ought to be looking at housing opportunities and job training opportunities as well, it’s the whole continuum that has to work together.”

Travillion reiterated that concern during Tuesday’s meeting.

Other options

Commissioners talked again Tuesday about partnering with FUSE, a California nonprofit that provides local governments extra staff and funding to take on equity projects.

Judge Brown said the partnership would bring in three executive fellows, one of which would focus on diversion efforts. The court talked in a work session last week about the possibility of that fellow helping build a brand new diversion center, which was the original job description posted for the role, according to Commissioner Shea.

Tuesday Brown clarified the role is much more fluid than it may have originally seemed to some members of the court. They decided Tuesday stakeholders would draft a more clear job description, which will come before the court potentially next week.

“This to me was an opportunity to add capacity to the court, and the department to look at something,” Commissioner Ann Howard said. “We won’t ever get there if we can’t add capacity to really explore and bring things together.”

City of Austin update

Earlier this month, the City of Austin also discussed the possibility of a diversion program, though details on that program have been sparse. They’re working to connect people who are experiencing homelessness to resources instead of jail.

The City of Austin also recently announced two possible sites that could serve as short-term encampments for people experiencing homelessness.

Those sites are:

  • 3511 Manor Road in east Austin (between Airport Boulevard and Berkman Drive)
  • 4011 Convict Hill Road in southwest Austin (between Brodie Lane and Latta Drive)

A briefing about the two sites is expected to be provided at a city council work session also happening Tuesday.

The release says staff could start gathering stakeholder feedback on both properties in August, which would include community meetings, opportunities to speak at city council meetings and community surveys via SpeakUp Austin!

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