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Photo provided by St. Tammany Parish -- St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister speaks at a town hall meeting to unveil the master plan for Safe Haven, a comprehensive behavioral health campus that the parish is planning on the site of the former state mental hospital near Mandeville.

A one-story brick house on the shady grounds of the former state mental hospital near Mandeville will soon be transformed into something St. Tammany Parish doesn't have now: a day center where adults with severe and persistent mental health problems can go for support, programs and resources.

The $558,496 renovation will be complete by the end of March, according to parish spokeswoman Amy Bouton. The work is being paid for with Community Development Block Grant money from the federal government.

The center, which will be operated by NAMI St. Tammany, is the first part of a much larger plan to create Safe Haven, a behavioral health campus that is designed to divert people in crisis from the emergency rooms and jails where they often end up now.

Parish President Pat Brister, who has been the driving force in creating Safe Haven following the state's decision to close the mental hospital, said it was gratifying to see the first step in the project become a reality.

"This is what we should do as a community," she said. "Morally, it is our responsibility." She said that Safe Haven will be a model for other places and is unlike anything else in the state or region.

The next step, a crisis intervention center, will cost $2.4 million for capital renovations, according to Kelly Rabalais, Brister's legal counsel who is heading up the project. It will provide six to eight beds each for triage, psychiatric observation and a sobering center.

The parish had planned to use money from a 1.77-mill public health tax for the crisis intervention center. The tax generates about $3.5 million annually. But the failure in April of sales tax renewals for operating the parish jail and courthouse has meant the health tax funds had to be redirected, Rabalais said, and the parish instead focused on finding grant money for the crisis center. 

She said she is hoping to begin construction of that center, which is considered the official Phase 1 of Safe Haven, by the first quarter of 2018. But subsequent phases of the overall project are on hold for now, she said.

The parish recently announced that it will put the two one-fifth-cent taxes back on the ballot in March.

Parish officials were sounding optimistic on Wednesday, however. Coroner Dr. Charles Preston called the day center groundbreaking a landmark day in reforming how mental health services are delivered to people who are suffering.

Mental health care is broken in the United States, he said, and is not optimal in St. Tammany, where people in crisis often end up waiting for days in emergency rooms or in jail.

Nick Richard, executive director of NAMI, said the project's roots go back to 2007, when the parish was dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and was facing a high suicide rate and the shutdown of the state mental hospital. He praised parish leaders for jumping in to address the situation and working together to make needed reforms.

Sheriff Randy Smith said that problems ranging from veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder to substance abuse and domestic violence all have links to mental illness. "We want to get these people help," he said.

The drop-in day center will have space for 30 people, although Tom Rowan, the program director, said those slots could probably be filled 20 times over.

The center will be staffed by people who themselves are recovering from mental illness and who have been certified as peer support specialists. They have received training and can do things like run support groups.

The center is not a clinical program, Rowan said, but will operate on what's known as the psychosocial rehabilitation clubhouse model. Those who attend will help decide what kind of programs they want, which could range from art and music therapy to traditional academic classes aimed at helping them get their GED.

The center also will be able to help homeless people, who will be able to shower there and get clean clothing, although Rowan stressed that it is a day program only, operating Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. NAMI also will be able to offer some transportation with a van, he said.

The people who are running the program have "been there, they understand what the individuals are going through" Richard said. The center will offer them an enviroment of hope and recovery, he said.

Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.