March 2020 is when everything changed. Two years later, we are examining how those changes inform us and inspire new direction.
Over the coming weeks, we will be taking a look at the way forward and how change has transformed our communities in every way — schools, health care, politics, policing, entertainment, religion, nonprofits and business.
Stories by a team of local reporters will be published periodically over the next several weeks and online at thereporteronline.com/tag/coronavirus/
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LANSDALE — On a sunny Monday afternoon that marked two years since the start of a pandemic that changed so much, about two dozen local law enforcement, nonprofit, and regional agency members gathered to tackle their community’s biggest problems.
Doing so is now a monthly occurrence of the new group called the “North Penn HUB” that’s building a foundation for the post-pandemic era.
“I think we’ve all seen the value of connections, in rooms like this, or even from a client perspective. When we respond to a suicide call, or just a lot of referrals, there’s been adjustments that people aren’t navigating well, due to being isolated for so long,” said Olivia Best, assistant director of Mobile Crisis, a support program offered by Access Services, the Fort Washington-based nonprofit in Montgomery County that provides supports to those with special needs.
“This is huge. This is so healing, just to be in one room full of people,” she said.
The North Penn HUB effort grew out of informal talks between the Lansdale Police Department and several local nonprofits and agencies starting in 2021, meant to bring local stakeholders together with law enforcement to tackle problems exacerbated by more than a year of lockdowns, distancing, and the pandemic. Those informal talks, between just a handful of groups at first, have since grown into a meeting of dozens of participants from across Montgomery County, sharing resources and contacts to tackle problems they face.
While those who take part can’t discuss specifics due to nondisclosure agreements, members of the North Penn HUB said after the last gathering on March 14 that it’s been an invaluable resource.
Sharing support and information
“The personal connections, learning about more resources, and just being able to count on one another to support the community,” said Alexis Moyer, hospital liaison with Merakey, the Colmar-based branch of a national behavioral health nonprofit.
“The increases of mental health calls, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, everything has been on the rise,” she said.
Merakey provides community-based services including recovery coaching, peer support, and wellness teams, all services that Moyer said were much more difficult after the arrival of the coronavirus.
“We’re actually in the homes, so that was very challenging during the whole COVID period,” Moyer said.
“For us, it was calling our customers, trying to support them via phone, which was really tough. Surprisingly, they did very well. We were able to get a grant for 50 iPhones to people, for virtual telehealth services. Trying to teach a paranoid schizophrenic to use it — that was a little challenging — but it was a godsend that we were able to have those,” Moyer said.
Merakey staff and partners implemented COVID protocols including those remote services, safe distancing, and mask-wearing, and created a COVID task force to examine and implement ways to keep their clients safe. While demand for their services increased sharply over the past two years, the numbers of people providing service went in the opposite direction, a challenge Moyer said no one could have predicted.
“There’s always been a lack of resources, and then after two years, it’s hard finding the staff who want to work during this. That’s a big difference, finding people coming into these fields during this time,” she said.
“Telehealth may be easier for the consumers to access some services, so that’s been beneficial, but on the flip side, it’s hard for psychiatrists to assess people via telehealth. People want to be back into groups, face to face. they miss that camaraderie of seeing their supports daily.”
Those challenges were similar for Radeen Scott, a resource coordinator for Jefferson-Health’s Abington department of psychiatry, who said her main responsibility is to offer resources for patients in need — and finding new and different ways to do so.
“You see a lot of anxiety, a lot of depression, mostly COVID-related … people who need someone to talk to, basically,” Scott said.
Service calls came from families trying to handle a new living arrangement or lifestyle brought on by the pandemic and who Scott can now direct to various HUB partners, like Best’s Mobile Crisis group.
“The grandparents who are raising grandchildren now, they may just need a listening ear, or some guidance,” she said. “There are things that we would just have no idea about, if not for this.”
Service covers the region
Scott said her office is based in Warminster, but also covers Abington’s Lansdale hospital area, so it includes Philadelphia, Montgomery and parts of Bucks County. Mobile Crisis takes part in several similar hubs across the region, according to Best, who said each has made that agency “more flexible — we definitely developed our partnerships with some of the external partners across the community.”
“I go to four hubs, and this one has tried to maintain being in person throughout, while social distancing. The Norristown, Abington, and Lower Merion hubs have all been virtual, since the pandemic,” she said.
“Having those relationships with these partners, it makes it so much easier to make referrals and so forth. ‘Oh yeah, I know the guy from the Montgomery Township police department, I can just give him a call’,” Best said, as Montgomery police officer Rob Johnson walked by.
Different regions, same issues
At first glance, one would think those different regions see and handle different problems, but that’s not always the case, she added.
“They’re more similar than you might think, In Lower Merion, there’s less volume of referrals, the Narberth, Ardmore, Bryn Mawr area, but we’re still seeing a lot in terms of mental illness, people affected by the pandemic,” Best said.
“Norristown, definitely a lot of domestic violence calls, a lot of police interactions. This hub in particular is great, because there are so many police departments represented here,” she said.
What has the pandemic taught Mobile Crisis? That agency has begun using an integrated health navigator role, which helps clients identify their needs and find the appropriate services, and can do so via telehealth instead of an in-person visit.
“The positive thing is, it’s increased our access to people, so I think it’s increased the amount of clients that we can see face-to-face,” Best said.
“A lot of people would prefer us to come to their homes, but (telehealth) makes it more accessible. The demand is greater, and the supply is less,” of those mental health services and resources.
Law enforcement feeling the strain
Mobile Crisis is just one aspect of what Access Services provides across Montgomery County, according to Jess Fenchel, Vice President for Behavioral Health with Access. Access also provides homeless street outreach services in Montgomery County, mental health support programs, and support for adults with serious mental illness who have been involved in the criminal justice system.
“One of the things we’ve seen from our law enforcement partners is much more interest in partnerships with behavioral health providers. We’ve actually been able to establish formal partnership relationships with about 20 percent of the law enforcement entities in the county, in addition to, over and beyond, the HUB,” she said.
Access maintains a bridge program which involves regular meetings with law enforcement entities to discuss individuals who most concern them, allowing the nonprofits to reach out to those in need, connect them to resources, and stabilize their issues or problems.
“Law enforcement is, I think, feeling the strain of increased needs in the community, and you see these horrible outcomes across the country, and how it puts more and more pressure on law enforcement,” Fenchel said.
“They really don’t want to be involved in acute behavioral health concerns, because that’s not what they’re trained to do. There’s so much opportunity for a negative outcome, and our experience of law enforcement in Montgomery County is, they really want to see positive outcomes for people who are at risk,” she said.
In addition to the Mobile Crisis line, Access helps oversee child behavioral health programs in 12 different counties, a mobile physician program in Montgomery and Bucks, a transitional mental health support program in three counties, and foster care services and services for those with intellectual disabilities in fourteen counties. Homeless outreach, mental health support, and peer support and teen support emergency lines are also offered across numerous counties, and a street medicine program piloted in Pottstown could soon be expanding to the Norristown area — all in partnership with local authorities.
“Law enforcement is the boots on the ground. They’re the first people to be aware of concerns in a community, and for the most part they don’t have the resources to be able to meet those needs,” she said.
“For us, it feels like a pretty big responsibility, to have the opportunity to partner with them, and deliver that support to the people in the community pretty quickly,” Fenchel said.
Police as partners
One example: a HUB program in Norristown bringing law enforcement and partners together in 2014-15 was able to successfully reduce repeat calls for services to the same address by over 200 percent in just the first year.
“While the same people tend to have the biggest needs, when you give people what they need, they don’t have contact with emergency services,” she said.
“For Lansdale, as a newer hub, that’s really been the focus of the first year: who are those people we hear from the most? And then we start thinking differently: how can we bring the most impact to the people that maybe we don’t hear from the most?”
One common obstacle may be that individuals with behavioral health issues have trouble finding services because they don’t have insurance coverage, or the coverage they do have doesn’t include access to the right type of provider.
“Being able to support the person, or the family, to resolve that health issue or coverage issue, and ID a provider that can care for that person, has — for a lot of people — completely resolved” their issue.
“There are so many people I could cite who are now successfully receiving treatment, and doing really well, and building lives, that are happy, and don’t involve the police,” Fenchel said.
One in particular is a man who was homeless roughly two years ago, living outside, and has since begun receiving support from an advocacy organization, and is now sharing his cooking skills — “and he’s fantastic, he’s a great cook.”
“At this point he has a home, and is able to share his skills, and is a really strong and giving community member. Those kinds of stories are really special to be a part of,” she said.
“Things like suicide, homelessness, these are community-level issues that can only be resolved by the community, No one entity can resolve this: police cannot resolve this, Mobile Crisis cannot resolve these things, no provider on their own can do that. But when everyone comes together, and fills their lane well, our communities have the ability to build resilience. And that reduces the number of people that need to suffer, and the length of time that they’re suffering.”
And one more key lesson they’ve learned over the past two year? Wherever there’s a need, there tends to be plenty of community members willing to help fill that need, even if sometimes it’s as simple as a post on Access’s “Community Needs” Facebook page asking for something specific.
“When we say ‘Here’s this guy Jim, and he needs a pair of size ten boots so he can start working,’ it’s moments before a person signs up to make that happen,” Fenchel said.
That’s another lesson Merakey has learned, Moyer said, to lean on personal connections, both between employees and clients, and between partner agencies and nonprofits that now work together like never before.
“It really is just a bunch of good people, who are not only knowledgeable about their services, but pour their hearts into it,” she said.
“When it comes to mental health, or social services, we’re in it because we truly care about people.”
Police find new partnerships through pandemic need Source link Police find new partnerships through pandemic need