ST. PETERSBURG — It was a quiet morning in the PEMHS south campus day room as residents colored on sheets of paper and Home Improvement reruns played on a TV in the corner.
For 30 years, PEMHS, or Personal Enrichment Through Mental Health Services, has operated a treatment facility for people with mental illness out of the building at 401 16th St. N.
But that quiet morning last week would be one of its last.
PEMHS shuttered the building Friday, and with it, 14 beds primarily used by low-income and uninsured people experiencing mental health crises.
Jerry Wennlund, the nonprofit's president and CEO, said the decision was brought on by a lack of funding, a building that has outlived the organization's needs and a change in the philosophy on how to connect people to treatment. The organization will channel about $400,000 into bolstering evaluation and case management services at its main campus in Pinellas Park, which has 45 beds for adults and 15 for children, to ensure people are connected to the right level of service.
"People come to PEMHS for a variety of reasons, most of which are appropriate, but a lot of them come to us because they don't have a safe place to be," Wennlund said. "We feel that if we can get them to a safe place, they don't need inpatient care."
However, some mental illness and substance abuse treatment providers question if an already-strained system is ready for the transition.
"The amount of services we have available versus the number of people who need them is out of balance," said April Lott, president and CEO of Directions for Living. "It would be naive to believe that just because we want it to work a certain way that it will."
It's a mantra of mental health advocates that Florida is consistently ranked near the bottom for funding when compared to other states. About $435,000 in funding from the state expired this year, and insurance reimbursements, which subsidize care for uninsured and low-income people, have decreased on average over the last decade, Wennlund said.
Aside from the funding aspect, the 3,500-square-foot building has outlived its use. PEMHS bought it in the 1980s and converted it into a short-term residential treatment facility. That was the first and only renovation, even when it became a crisis unit in 2006.
The age and size have created challenges, said Kristin Ryan, coordinator of crisis services. For example, before the staff converted a closet into a therapist's office, resident meetings would happen in whichever room was free at the time, including next to a bed with straps used to restrain violent residents.
Behavioral health care providers statewide are also changing their approach to treatment, kicked off formally last year with the passage of a Senate bill mandating a coordinated system of care between providers.
Not everyone who comes to PEMHS needs the level of care that comes with staying in a locked facility, Wennlund said. And one of the biggest struggles is ensuring people show up to their next appointment. Many lack transportation, housing and a stable network of family and friends.
Wennlund wants to channel more resources into evaluating and directly connecting people to the next step, whether it's a doctor's appointment or shelter or some other service.
The majority of PEHMS's clients are brought in by law enforcement under the Baker Act, a law to commit people for evaluation who are determined to be a harm to themselves or others. The closure will lead to longer commutes, and time away from patrolling, for St. Petersburg police officers and Pinellas sheriff's deputies who work in south county.
It's not the end of the world, said Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, but he's not sure if the transition Wennlund outlined is realistic.
"Any time you have to take away from one thing and add to another, given the state of mental health and the lack of mental health funding, all that concerns me," he said.
Lott said the closure will show that state and national leaders continue to neglect people with mental illness and substance abuse issues.
"Because we have done that, people don't get the help they need until it's a crisis, so they go into a crisis stabilization unit (such as PEMHS), which we're now closing," Lott said.
The saving grace, she said, is that area service providers work well together. Her organization has set aside on-call staff to intervene with people at PEMHS for preadmission or postdischarge services.
The Suncoast Center, which provides an array of mental health and substance abuse services, implemented a program to hold doctor's appointments via video chat to make care more accessible. Kristin Mathre, the chief operating officer, echoed Lott in that cooperation will be key for the transition to succeed.
"Every creative way that we can reach people to make a difference and save lives," she said, "we have to do it."
Contact Kathryn Varn at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.