Soft, meditative music was playing inside of the community room at the Westside Community Triage and Wellness Center, 4133 W. Madison St., one hot afternoon earlier this month. The lights were dimmed, the air cool, the room painted in the hushed, yet expansive, tone of a clear blue sky.
The only indication that this atmosphere was amid the hustle and bustle of a busy West Garfield Park thoroughfare was the streetscape — visible through a large window running along most of the top quarter portion of the room’s back wall.
“Just imagine coming in off of Madison Street and hearing something like this,” said Donald Dew, the CEO of Habilitative Systems during an interview on Aug. 3 inside of the Wellness Center — what many community health experts like Dew say is the first facility of its kind on the West Side.
“The first thing people will hear when they come in here is this soft music,” Dew said. “The lights will be subdued. Immediately when they come in here there will be a sense of safety, solitude and sanctuary.”
The triage center — the result of a partnership between Habilitative Systems, the Bobby E. Wright Comprehensive Behavioral Health Center and the Cook County Health and Hospitals System — held a grand opening last month.
In addition to holding training exercises on relaxation, yoga, tai chi, mindfulness and meditation in the community room for anyone in the community who wants to participate, the center will also offer a range of medical, mental health and addiction-related services for those people with more immediate needs.
The center features a 24/7 emergency drop-off point, where first responders can send people who require psychiatric intervention and addiction treatment. There’s also a waiting room where police officers and emergency medical technicians can sit and drink coffee while clients are being processed.
Most of the rooms are named after influential West Side community leaders — a conference room named after Congressman Danny K. Davis (7th), a relaxation room named after Earlean Lindsey — one of Dew’s mentors who was a pioneer in the advent of community health centers and the president of Westside Association for Community Action — a staff lounge named after Edna Stewart, the late soul food queen and owner of the popular West Side eatery that bore her name.
Once clients are dropped off, Dew said, they can eat, get hydrated, calm down, shower and undergo health exams, among other services.
“We’re going to take care of the basic human needs first,” Dew said. “You need to get some water, you need to eat, you need to be treated right.”
Dew said that the center is a necessary contrast to the way that people suffering addiction and mental health issues have been treated in the past. Instead of getting sent to a triage center, they’d be sent to jail.
“Sheriff Dart had been saying for the longest that the Cook County Jail is the largest mental health facility in the nation and that folks need treatment — they do not need to be in Cook County Jail simply because they can’t make bail,” Dew said.
“There are all these folks languishing in jail who need mental health and substance abuse treatment,” he added. “Now, they have the opportunity to get those services as opposed to being incarcerated.”
Despite the center’s polished look — some areas in the facility resemble the lobbies of upscale hotels — community members pay nothing to utilize its range of services.
According to Rashad Saafir, the president and CEO of Bobby E. Wright, the center currently has around 12 full-time employees, with the goal of adding 10 more staffers. Nurses, doctors and psychiatrists circulate through the center, Dew said.
The center was funded by $4.5 million allocated by the Cook County Board of Commissioners. The money is budgeted for three years. Dew said that he’s hopeful that the board will reauthorize the center for another three years of funding.
The center is also looking at other possible funding sources from various foundations and state agencies, including the Department of Human Services.
“We’ll also be able to bill for crisis intervention and some of the other services we provide so we’ll be able to generate some third-party payer income,” Saafir said.
With the center now open, it sits at the front lines of an intensifying opioid crisis that is wracking communities across the country, particularly poor communities of color like West Garfield Park and Austin.
Saafir said that he plans for the center to become a site where community members and center employees can get training on how to notice the signs of an opioid overdose and administer Narcan — an opiate antidote that reverses the immediate effects of a narcotic overdose.
“The best people to have Narcan are the people who are using heroin,” Saafir said. “If you are with your buddy and both of you are using and he experiences an overdose, you should be able to administer Narcan.
“You know what the signs are, how to do the pressure points to determine if he’s really unresponsive and how many doses you may need to administer to save his life. We want to do that for the community generally, but certainly everybody working here.”
The center’s philosophy is encapsulated in a mantra that Dew and Saafir often repeat.
“This is about treating people with humanity, dignity and respect,” Dew said. “Right when folks come through the door, that’s what they’re going to get. No drama, no trauma, no stress, no mess.”