Berkeley is securing resources for its new, 24/7 mental health response team, which will be dispatched to handle emergencies in public spaces and private homes.
Officials have begun hiring about 21 staff members for the fledgling Specialized Care Unit, hoping they will begin responding to Berkeley residents facing drug and mental-health emergencies starting in June. The pilot program, which follows two and a half years of planning and research sparked by calls for police reform in the summer of 2020, will operate independently from the Berkeley Police Department.
The SCU is short on funds, and organizers at the city and Bonita House — the mental health care provider the city has contracted to run the program — said they are still working out some logistics. However, Samantha Russell, Bonita House’s director of crisis services, said she has high hopes for the initiative that will give civilian responders more access to people in crisis than any other program in the Bay Area.
“It has the potential to be very, very cool and very exciting,” Russell said. “Berkeley will once again be making history in the way that they are running things.”
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If all goes as planned, Russell said the SCU “would be a first” for Berkeley and the Bay Area.
Until recently, San Francisco’s Street Crisis Response Team followed a somewhat similar model, responding around the clock to certain 911 calls with medical and mental health professionals and a certified peer specialist.
But Russell said the SCU will go further than the San Francisco program. While the larger city’s response team only responds to emergencies in public spaces, Berkeley’s team will also be able to enter private residences.
The Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland (MACRO) program also offers a non-law enforcement response to residents in crisis, but it operates 16 hours a day instead of 24/7.
Bonita House currently plans to coordinate three three-person teams, each working a 10-hour shift and operating a van equipped with emergency supplies. Team members will respond to immediate crises and also connect people involved to community resources.
The consulting firm Resource Development Associates recommended dispatching SCU staff to most calls involving suicide, drug overdoses, welfare checks, trespassing and other nonviolent emergencies. The consulting firm also recommended having police and the Mobile Crisis Team, which provides services for mental health crisis, respond instead of the SCU if a weapon like a knife or a firearm is present.
Russell estimated that each SCU team will be able to take about four calls during a shift.
“We will not be able to take every call ever,” she warned. “That’s just not gonna be possible. We don’t have enough staff.”
The director said her team is still sorting through the details of coordinating calls with dispatch. The SCU will have a phone number and be based in a location separate from dispatch, but it will also respond to some eligible 911 calls.
“The first year is always a big learning year,” said Russell, adding that the program will begin collecting data on its operations immediately and refine its approach over time.
Another potential hurdle for the SCU is funding.
Bonita House’s contract with the city expires in January 2025. Resource Development Associates’ initial reports called for a program budget of over $10 million to run the SCU pilot for two years.
The current budget is $5.5 million, which includes $4.5 million from the city and a $1 million state grant.
Russell said she plans to provide all the services the consulting firm recommended but “potentially not for the entire time.” If Bonita House can’t get more grants or city funding, Russell estimates the project has only enough money to run for about 18 months.
Katie Hawn, special projects manager at Berkeley’s Health, Housing and Community Services department, said another concern is supply chain issues that may delay organizers purchasing necessary program equipment, like wheelchair-accessible vans.
It wouldn’t be the first time this program has faced delays. The consulting firm’s reports called for the SCU to begin operations last September, but the city has pushed back its expected start date multiple times.
The complexities of funding and operations aside, Russell said she is seeking to connect with Berkeley’s care networks and make community members aware of the new program.
“It’s coming,” she said with a laugh. “I guess that would be my message. It is coming, I promise.”
An unmet need
The Berkeley City Council voted to greenlight the SCU in July 2020 amid widespread calls for a more equitable and evidence-based approach to public safety.
Resource Development Associates spoke with community members and numerous crisis response teams in other cities to create a list of detailed recommendations for the initiative. The firm called for a program that looks a bit like Berkeley’s Mobile Crisis Team and the Bonita House-run Community Assessment and Transport Team, which operates in several other Alameda County cities.
Both of these programs provide medical and psychiatric aid during emergencies.
But there’s a key difference between existing local resources and the SCU. While those response teams depend on police officers securing the scene before other personnel can enter, the SCU will be able to respond independently to drug and mental-health emergencies.
Reports conducted by the consulting firm in 2021 underscore the importance of this difference. Berkeley residents responding to the firm’s surveys voiced worries about calling the police and officers potentially escalating mental health crises for people who have been victims of police brutality.
An anonymous respondent who identified as a nurse practitioner said it was agreed never to call law enforcement at some Berkeley encampments.
Another person described the frustration of trying to help a friend undergoing a mental health crisis.
“She was adamant that I not call police because she is scared of them and feared that they would be violent with her. There were no alternatives available in Berkeley,” the respondent wrote.
A study by the consulting firm found that only 58% of surveyed Berkeley residents said they would likely call 911 during a mental health or substance use crisis, compared to 86% who said they’d likely do so in other emergencies.
Hawn said she’s excited about the support the SCU has received as organizers have hosted public forums and spoken with city leadership. “I think that there’s been a need in the community for quite some time,” she said.