When the Pendleton Creek Crisis Recovery Center opened almost two months ago in Pendleton, no one was quite sure what would happen.

Would it be overrun with the mentally ill people police officers so often find on the streets? Would referrals come from other sources? Would the place sit empty? No one really knew.

"I was often told there's no model for this -- there's no template," said Administrator Hal Schaeffer. "I feel a little like Magellan."

He said the idea was to take a burden off police and emergency rooms by providing short-term crisis help for people with mental illness. The five-bed facility would provide an oasis of sorts where those in crisis could sort out problems, get medications figured out and find guidance.

Likely benefactors, besides the mentally ill themselves, would be law enforcement officers who often transport mentally ill people they find on the streets to hospitals for mental health assessments and get waylaid there, sometimes for several hours.

Some, such as Pendleton Police Chief Stuart Roberts, expressed early reservations about the voluntary nature of the crisis center. A police officer might transport a person to the facility and five minutes later, the person could decide to walk.

When the center actually opened on Feb. 10, nothing happened quickly. No deluge. Just when management was starting to worry, however, things changed in a hurry.

"Last week, it just exploded," Schaeffer said. "It gradually picked up and now we have full occupancy with a waiting list of clients."

Greater Oregon Behavioral Health Inc. holds the state-awarded contract for the center. Lifeways, Schaeffer's employer, oversees day-to-day operations. Three to five employees are on-site at any one time.

Oddly, law enforcement hasn't referred many clients so far.

"We had expected that law enforcement would be the single biggest referral source," said Rick George, Lifeways' director of behavioral health. "That's not proven to be true."

Rather, referrals have come mostly from hospital emergency departments and mental health caseworkers. Many of the clients had fallen off their medications and needed to get back on track. One person came straight from prison. A severely anxious woman found help after being terrorized by her husband in a domestic violence situation.

The average stay is three or four days.

The Pendleton Police Department still hasn't successfully referred anyone. To be admitted, a person has to meet strict parameters. Schaeffer ticked off some of them.

Clients, he said, must be 18 or older and not be intoxicated, delirious, violent or threatening, dangerously suicidal, acutely ill, need seclusion or restraint or lack the capacity to give informed consent. Even if they are eligible, clients can just say no.

"This is strictly voluntary," he said. "A client may initially say yes, but wake up the next morning and say, 'I'm out of here.'"

Schaeffer, who exudes calm, is one of those guys who seems to be able to see straight into a person's psyche. He meshes perfectly with the cheery ambiance of the center, which is located on the old Eastern Oregon Training Center campus across from the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution.

He described the center as a place to chill, regain footing and hash out the options. The living room features comfy chairs, a flat screen television and potted plants. Outside is a deck with benches. Bedrooms are Spartan, but cozy with twin beds, storage locker, chair and closet.

Though the facility takes out-of-area clients, Umatilla County has priority. Schaeffer and George believe referrals will rise as the value becomes more apparent. Hospitals and jails have become de facto crisis centers, they said, but it doesn't need to be that way.

"Sometimes people with mental illness are in the hospital simply because there is nowhere else for them to go," George said.

Schaeffer said the facility may not be able to handle demand.

"I don't think five beds is going to be adequate," Schaeffer said.

Contact Kathy Aney at kaney@eastoregonian.com or call 541-966-0810.

This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.

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