The grand opening of United Caring Services’ new diversion center was nearly a decade in the making, and Executive Director Va Cun describes it as “a grand milestone” in the nonprofit agency’s history.
Located in the agency’s headquarters at 324 N.W. Sixth St., the diversion center will be used by law enforcement, UCS, and other local agencies for the purpose of connecting homeless individuals with an addiction or mental health crisis with appropriate resources.
It is considered an alternative approach to taking such individuals to jail if they are accused of nonviolent crimes. Vanderburgh County Sheriff Noah Robinson and members of the Evansville Police Department attended the opening ceremony Oct. 25 in support of the center.
“Here in this moment, we are saying to our unhoused brothers and sisters, you are not alone,” Cun said at the event. “You are seen. We acknowledge your humanity. The measure of any community is how we care for those who are most vulnerable.”
At first, the four-bed facility will be open four days a week during daytime hours. UCS Director of Recuperative Care Maggie Taylor says the agency believes it will accomplish much.
“Research shows that around one-third of individuals experiencing homelessness have issues with alcohol and drugs, and approximately two-thirds of those people have lifetime histories of drug and alcohol disorders,” Taylor says. “These numbers are staggering, and this is why the diversion center is being put into place.”
Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke is familiar with the need. He recalled a visit to his office a few years ago by members of the Congregations Acting for Justice and Empowerment — better known as CAJE — who sought a way to steer homeless individuals in a mental health crisis away from incarceration.
“The whole idea, the whole ask, was to figure out a way to create a facility that can take people away from automatically going to an emergency room or the jail when they’re having a mental health crisis or they’re suffering from some sort of addiction or intoxication that makes them get involved with law enforcement,” Winnecke told the audience at the grand opening.
Winnecke recalled that a group of interested residents traveled to San Antonio, Texas, to view a facility there. Upon returning, the group’s task was to figure out how to do something similar in Evansville, but on a smaller scale.
The effort required multiple partners. One was UCS, which agreed to host the diversion center. The Evansville City Council in February 2022 approved funding to renovate the required space.
“The stars aligned,” Winnecke says. “We were ready to open before COVID. As everyone knows, COVID put a screeching halt to a lot of things. But thanks to the hard work and the dedication of so many, the vision has remained the same. … We’re a better and stronger community because this is opening.”
Cun agreed and said the diversion center aligns with what UCS strives to do.
“Our mission has been and remains to be recognizing the humanity of each and every individual,” she said. “We do so by providing lifesaving services and programs without prejudice against an individual’s life circumstances, their ability, or lack of opportunity.”