‘Long journey’ to add West Side mental health center reaches destination

Conventional wisdom held that tax-stressed Chicago voters wouldn’t vote to raise their own taxes, and it didn’t seem like a subject as unsexy as improved mental health services would cause them to make an exception.

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 Janice Oda-Gray, Allan Evans and Jacquelyn Ingram

Residents, left to right, Janice Oda-Gray, Allan Evans and Jacquelyn Ingram are among the organizers of The Encompassing Center, a new mental health treatment facility serving the West Side.

Mark Brown/Sun-Times

Three years ago I sat down with four West Side residents who briefed me on a pretty audacious plan.

They were part of a group that wanted to pass a referendum asking their neighbors in the communities of North Lawndale, East and West Garfield Park and the Near West Side to approve a small increase in their property taxes.

With the money, the group proposed establishing a new community mental health center to serve their area, filling a need they didn’t see being met through the normal channels of government.

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Conventional wisdom held that tax-stressed Chicago voters wouldn’t vote to raise their own taxes, and it didn’t seem like a subject as unsexy as improved mental health services would cause them to make an exception.

On Wednesday, what once seemed like a longshot will become reality when The Encompassing Center, 3019 W. Harrison, opens its doors to the public.

About 100 people crowded their way Tuesday into a ceremonial ribbon cutting at the remodeled industrial building that houses the new mental health center.

“I think it’s going to be a success,” said Bill Stovall, one of the community members I met at that 2016 meeting and who hung in there for what he says was a “long, long journey.”

In many ways, it already has been a success — a true grassroots effort accomplished outside the normal channels of government and politics as everyday citizens identified a problem in their community and came together to solve it.

Still, those organizers thought the hard part was behind them when voters overwhelmingly approved the referendum at the November 2016 election.

It turned out they were just getting started, said Janice Oda-Gray and Jacquelyn Ingram, who I also first met at that 2016 meeting in Ingram’s living room.

Even with voter approval, they still had to arrange for the county to collect the tax dollars — expected to be about $1.2 million a year.

And they couldn’t move forward until the governor and the mayor appointed the board of trustees that will run the organization, those appointments taking longer than expected.

Then they had to identify a location for the facility, which also proved difficult when potential landlords balked after learning it would be used as a mental health center.

And finally they had to choose a partner with the capability to actually provide the mental health services that are The Encompassing Center’s reason for being.

For that, they turned to Catholic Charities, the Midwest’s largest private social service provider, which saw an opportunity to expand its West Side footprint.

Jennifer Smith, who will serve as program director, will manage a staff of about a dozen clinicians and case workers that plans to “serve everyone” — including both children and adults.

One of the first steps will be outreach work to overcome the stigma of mental health care and convince people of the value of talking about their emotional problems.

“I think people view mental health as, ‘Oh, that’s for people who are crazy,’ or ‘Oh, that’s not for us,’ or if there isn’t enough resources, maybe it’s just not important for the African-American population, but it is,” Smith said.

Smith says the center will concentrate on “prevention and intervention,” including therapy and substance abuse counseling.

Deshaunna Washington, one of the new case workers, said her job will be to help meet the basic needs of the clients — such as finding housing, jobs and educational resources.

Washington said she expects to be seeing a lot of people facing trauma in their lives — whether from violence, drug abuse or poverty.

The West Side group was actually the second to start a community mental health service.The Kedzie Center, 4141 N. Kedzie, opened in 2014 after being approved by voters in Albany Park, Irving Park and North Park.

Last year, voters in Logan Square, Hermosa and Avondale became the third to take the plunge. Organizers there are now in the organizational phase.

Michael Snedeker, who has been involved in all three efforts as executive director of the Coalition to Save Our Mental Health Centers, said his organization’s goal is to make sure there’s mental health treatment available in every community that wants it.

“We are far more united on issues that are important to us than we think,” Snedeker said. “Congratulations to the West Side. You did it.”

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