Helena State Capitol File Are

The sun shines on Montana's capitol building on Wednesday, March 20, 2019, in Helena.

John MacDonald was once on a police ride-along when someone called 911 on a belligerent man outside a bar. When officers arrived, they knew the person by name. He wasn’t drunk — he was off the medication for his mental health disorder.

MacDonald, a lobbyist for the city of Missoula, said officers took the man to the hospital and stayed for hours to make sure he got help.

“It’s a side of law enforcement I hadn’t seen, and I think it’s a growing issue,” he told state lawmakers.

Following testimony like MacDonald’s, the House Judiciary Committee backed a request Tuesday to study policies that address safety and social justice concerns around homelessness and substance use or mental health disorders.

House Joint Resolution 57, sponsored by Rep. Kathy Kelker, D-Billings, passed the committee on a 17-2 vote.

The study would include looking for ways to increase access to treatment through combining physical and behavioral health services. It would also examine tools like mobile crisis teams that respond to mental health concerns.

Kelker said she remembers when the nation moved away from sending people with mental health issues to isolated institutions in the 1970s. She said Montana’s treatment system still hasn’t completely caught up to that shift.

State policy now largely relies on counties to respond to mental health needs. Kelker said that often falls to law enforcement to decide what to do when someone is a danger to themselves or others because of a disorder. She said too often, their only choice is to lock someone up or drop them off at the emergency room.

The majority of people who are homeless in Montana live with a mental illness.

“Communities have responded with emergency shelters, soup kitchens, job training and transitional housing,” Kelker said. “But these efforts are not effective without paying attention to the underlying reasons why people are on the streets.”

It’s not just about services. Kelker said towns across Montana worry about the costs and safety concerns that come with unmet mental health needs.

No one spoke against the resolution Tuesday. Supporters said it’s a step toward decriminalizing illness.

Bozeman City Commissioner Terry Cunningham said the work could lead to some relief for local governments.

In Gallatin County and Bozeman, deputies and officers go through crisis intervention training. There’s also Gallatin County Treatment Court, a voluntary program that offers an alternative to traditional sentencing when a crime is tied to an addiction. Cunningham said Bozeman also recently set aside funding for a mental health case worker at a local crisis center.

Even so, he said Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital has become the community’s “de facto sobering center.” Cases and incidents related to addiction and mental health dominate Bozeman’s police blotter and court system.

“It’s a national and statewide issue that cries out for collaboration, creativity and exploration,” Cunningham said.

The Montana Medical Association, Montana Association of Chiefs of Police and the Montana Association of Marriage and Family Therapists also supported the bill, among others.

The interim study would also search for ways to pay for a better system to respond to people’s needs.

In the last two years, health providers have said they’ve felt left out of state decisions that whittled mental health spending after a budget shortfall.

Beth Brenneman, of Disability Rights Montana, said it’s not the first time.

“Every time we get a good new initiative that’s always supported by law enforcement, mental health advocates, et cetera, that gets funded, that is the first thing cut when there is an economic downturn,” she said.

Katheryn Houghton can be reached at khoughton@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628. Follow her on Twitter @K_Hought.

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