Left to Right: Lake County Board Vice Chair Mary Ross Cunningham, Lake County Board Chair Sandy Hart, Living Room Coordinator Dr. Fritz Gelin, Independence Center Board President Judith Shaffer, Lake County Sheriff’s Chief of Staff Anthony Vega, Waukegan Mayor Ann Taylor, Gurnee Chief of Police Brian Smith, and Lake County State’s Attorney Eric Rinehart. | Provided photo.

The Lake County Sheriff’s Office announced that a non-profit center in Waukegan will now be an alternative to jail for those who have mental health issues or substance use disorders.

The Independence Center, in partnership with the Lake County’s Sheriff’s Office, Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office, and Lake County Government, announced the expansion of the Living Room Wellness Center.

The Living Room Wellness Center is a support center for those living with mental health issues or substance use disorders. Officials said it is a critical component of Lake County’s ongoing effort to reduce the county’s jail population.

The wellness center officially expanded its operations on Thursday and is now open seven days a week every day of the year for anyone in Lake County experiencing increased mental health symptoms or near-crisis due to emotional distress.

The Living Room Wellness Center offers free-of-charge crisis intervention, peer counseling, person-centered safety and crisis planning, as well as basic needs like healthy food, clean showers and transportation.

This expansion allows law enforcement to bring people to the wellness center for safe and professional services, rather than jail.

The initial phase of the program will be limited to the Lake County Sheriff’s Office and the Crisis Outreach and Support Team (COAST) program.

COAST has already interacted with 1,634 residents with mental symptoms.

They plan on using the center to coordinate services for those that need it.

Eventually, the wellness center will be available to other law enforcement agencies.

The center will also be added as an entry point for participants of the Lake County Opioid Initiative’s ‘A Way Out’ program.

Many officials reacted positively to the expansion.

Lake County Sheriff John D. Idleburg said, “Jails are intended to be a place for violent pretrial detainees, not for those living (with) mental illness.”

“We have been working with Independence Center and our criminal justice partners for a long time to make the expansion of the Living Room Wellness Center a reality, and this is an exciting first-step toward providing proper care and placement for our Lake County residents who are in need of proper resources,” Idleburg added.

Judith Shaffer, Independence Center’s Board President, said, “We believe that every person has the right to work toward achieving the same quality of life and self-fulfillment that all people live.”

“The Living Room Wellness Center, a nationally recognized model of support for people with mental illness, provides a welcoming, safe, comfortable, inviting environment that aims to decrease unnecessary hospitalizations, reduce our local jail population and develop a peer-based support network for every individual who reaches out for help,” Shaffer added.

“Since opening last August, the center has helped over 300 individuals with increased mental illness symptoms or near a crisis by providing safe and professional services centered in dignity and respect. We are proud to be in partnership with Lake County’s Sheriff’s Office, the Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office, and Lake County Government, and believe this expansion will help build stronger communities,” Shaffer said.

Lake County State’s Attorney Eric Rinehart said, “This achievement is critical to the well-being and safety of Lake County residents.”

“Chair Hart, Vice Chair Cunningham, Sheriff Idleburg, the MacArthur Foundation, and Healthcare Foundation of Northern Lake County have showed amazing leadership and wisdom in setting this plan into motion. This Center will protect the community and satisfy our moral duty to treat those in need,” Rinehart added.

Funding from The Independence Center, two grants from the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, and a grant from the Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office made the project possible.