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New outreach coordinator aims to curb the number of serial inebriates in downtown Billings

June 2, 2017

Josiah Hugs begins work Monday as Billings’ newest resource outreach coordinator, the person charged with helping the 40 or so people downtown identified as serial inebriates to access — if they choose — the treatment that can turn their life around.

Hugs, a member of the Crow Tribe, is helping to revive a program that’s been moribund for months after his two predecessors, Joel Simpson and Dave Kobold, found other work.

Aboard a new bicycle, he’ll pedal the streets together with downtown resource officers Josh Schoening and Matt Frank, introducing himself to some and reaching out to people he already knows by leading Wellbriety groups five times each week at Billings First Congregational Church.

The Native American-operated nonprofit program focuses on helping people find sobriety and then recovery from the harmful effects of drugs and alcohol.

New resource outreach coordinator Josiah Hugs speaks during a Community Innovations committee meeting at the Billings Public Library on Thursday.

“Having Josiah is going to be huge,” Frank said Thursday to the program committee of Community Innovations, the interdisciplinary group that two years ago founded the policing, outreach and Municipal Court -centered approach to reach what was initially identified as 74 serial inebriates in a program modeled after an established one in San Diego. “When he’s with us, people can see an option. They might decide that, ‘This isn’t a lifestyle I want to lead — not today, but soon.’ ”

Without a ROC in place — and with the county jail population exceeding 500 people on many nights — the Motivated Addiction Alternative Program has seen alternatives dwindle in recent months, the two officers told committee members Thursday.

But with Hugs on board, the downtown officers will once again attend briefing meetings to remind their fellow officers of the treatment and incarceration options available.

Members of the Community Innovations Program Committee discuss plans during a meeting at the Billings Public Library on Thursday.

Under the program, a person cited for open container or alcohol-related trespass five times in a 60-day period can be sentenced to a jail term, but can at any point choose treatment instead.

Lisa Harmon, one of the founders of Community Innovations and the executive director of the Downtown Billings Alliance, said that downtown property owners “can’t imagine the downtown without the treatment model.”

“Lately we have been dialed into nighttime behavior problems, and that worries us,” she said. Hugs has agreed to work some evening hours, “and we’ll have some extra bike patrols downtown, so you’ll be seeing even more enforcement.”

Harmon said Hugs’ salary will be paid by DBA’s Spare Change for Real Change initiative.

“I am super excited,” she said, “that Josiah will come in and work that relational piece from a point of experience and with sensibility to the culture as well.”

For his part, Hugs said his job initially will be “to come in here and feel my way — and hang out with those guys,” gesturing toward Frank and Schoening.

Resource outreach coordinator Josiah Hugs, left, and downtown resource officers Josh Schoening, center, and Matt Frank, left, during a Community Innovations committee meeting at the Billings Public Library on Thursday.

The time may be nigh to revitalize the program. MarCee Neary, program director at the Community Crisis Center, said that March saw the most people the center has ever served — 1,042 people. April’s count also exceeded 1,000, and center staff had counted 1,000 people by May 28, the most recent tally.

Those higher-than-expected numbers occurred during relatively warm months, when people in crisis will sometimes opt instead to camp outdoors, she said.

“It seems like we are getting an influx of people from other states,” she said. One month during the period, people from 12 states were served at the center; the following month, that number was 15 states.

“Josiah’s hiring is a wonderful thing,” she said. “He is a person who builds relationships so that the MAAP can work.”

Lenette Kosovich, chief executive officer at Rimrock, which provides a number of treatment services related to addiction, said that Hugs was already working weekends at Rimrock.

“He came forward and said, ‘Yeah, I want to do this,’ ” she said. While he’s not a licensed addictions counselor, he can become licensed with 300 hours of supervised oversight, she said.

“We felt bad that there has been this hiccup (in the program),” said Kosovich, who together with Neary co-chairs the program committee. “I think we are recalibrating now. We have had some creep in the behaviors we saw before, but we know that this works.”

Neary said she’s had it in her mind that “98 percent of the people who came through our doors hated their lifestyle, but didn’t know how to change. They just needed something to push them to make it happen.”

“The whole idea,” she added, “is to get them the help they need, not punish them. Some may still choose incarceration, but they can at any time say, ‘I want to try the treatment track.’ They are given options, and they always have a choice.”