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Gilbert Gonzales, director of the Bexar County Department of Behavioral and Mental Health in San Antonio, visited Rapid City and Dahl Arts Center on Thursday to present Haven for Hope, a program that Gonzales and other San Antonio leaders introduced in 2010. The Journal spoke with Gonzales before the scheduled event to learn more about Haven for Hope and its potential for aiding, treating and housing people afflicted with mental illness, substance abuse and homelessness.

Can you tell us about your background in psychology?

I was born and raised in San Antonio. I’m a psychologist by training. ... I’ve been in private practice as a psychotherapist, as a psychologist and then as program director and then ... I started building organizations, and then got involved with jail diversion efforts in 2000. ... I’m the director of the Behavioral and Mental Department of Bexar County. That is a very different animal in that we are responsible for mental health and substance abuse for the entire county, and we coordinate all of the services for that oversight.

What is your experience in treating the mentally ill?

My first job was at a state hospital for the mentally ill, and I began to notice that there was so much need at the hospital and so much need for persons with mental illness. I wanted to make the biggest impact that I possibly could. What that meant was, finding out why people couldn’t get treatment. So what I discovered ... was that there is a tremendous misunderstanding about mental illness, period. People don’t understand. They fear it, there’s a stigma, and the media is highlighting the few instances when individuals with mental illness do some very, very, very bad things. (But) the reality is that instances of violence for persons with mental illness are less than 2 percent.

What is Haven for Hope?

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“(It is a) 1,600-bed, 17 acres, 46 organizations, (with a) $100 million budget (annually, coming from) public and private dollars. ... So now what we have in San Antonio is a system, co-located in one place, where you can meet 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

When, why and how did it come about? What is its mission?

In 2000, Bexar County and its community came together, much like is happening today (in Pennington County) and they said, "We have got to stop the criminalization of persons with mental illness and substance abuse." At that time, if you were mentally ill, you went directly to jail. ... The biggest treatment institutions, or lack of treatment institutions, were our jails. In 2000, our community said, "We’re going to do something about this." ... CIT (crisis intervention treatment programs) began as the first leg. ... You have to have a diversion program ... but the real question is, "Divert to what?" ... So that’s when the local mental health authority came in and said, "OK, we’re going to have a crisis center ... it’s going to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. ... It’s going to have psychiatric assessment capability, substance abuse capability, detox capability, medical clearance capabilities and it’s going to have a component that will be able to provide housing."

San Antonio is obviously quite different from Rapid City. Why do you think this program could work in Rapid City?

“It makes dollars and cents. ... We’ve been able to divert around $50 million in five years of actual cost. ... In Bexar County, if you’re arrested, it’s going to cost $2,295 to book you one time. But if you’re taken to treatment and diverted, it’s going to cost the community $350 ... and get treatment to the individual. ... The path that you all are on (in Pennington County) is accelerated from the path that we had.”

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