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Santa Rosa mental health emergency response program marks first 4 months

InRESPONSE, Santa Rosa’s behavioral health emergency response program, has handled nearly 500 crisis calls since the civilian mobile support van hit the streets in January.

That figure was among the data reported in the first public meeting on the program, held online Monday evening, where city officials described insights they’ve gained in the first four months of inRESPONSE operations and took feedback from members of the community.

“We were really excited about the number that showed up,” said Interim Police Chief John Cregan. More than 130 people attended the virtual meeting.

Cregan, who has spearheaded the initiative, called the unveiling of inRESPONSE and the subsequent community meeting “one of the proudest moment of my career.” The program was first imagined in 2020, after protests against police brutality locally and nationwide spurred changes in the way law enforcement handle social problems.

The program, funded out of the Santa Rosa Police Department budget, contracts with multiple agencies and nonprofits for its services.

With inRESPONSE, Santa Rosa now sends a licensed clinical social worker, a firefighter paramedic and a homeless outreach coordinator to 911 calls related to behavioral health, substance use, suicide, medical issues, homelessness and minor crimes. The goal is to divert 5,000 emergency calls away from the police department by the end of the year.

Joining Cregan on Monday’s panel was Katie Swan, program manager with Buckelew Programs; Santa Rosa Fire Department Captain Chris Matthies; Sonoma County Health Services Program Manager Wendy Tappon; and Jennielynn Holmes, director of programs for Catholic Charities — all of whom collaborate on inRESPONSE.

Swan, who wrangles the group’s data, said they saw demand for inRESPONSE services growing.

“As the community learns to build trust with us our call volume continues to increase,” Swan said.

Between Jan. 11 and April 11, the van responded to 487 calls: 70 in January, 118 in February, 232 in March and 67 in the first 10 days of April.

At 48%, mental health support-related calls comprised the largest share of the van’s activity. Twenty percent were homelessness-related, and 2% were medical support-related. The team responded to 193 calls related to people between the ages of 26 and 59, 70 for people over 60, 26 for people under 18 and 23 for people between 18 and 25. The ages were unknown or unreported in 174 cases.

Cregan said while program officials are still determining how to measure outcomes, they intend to track the numbers of people diverted from jails and emergency rooms as one indicator of success.

The Santa Rosa program was modeled after the behavioral health response team in Eugene, Oregon, called CAHOOTS, though the local version now goes beyond its predecessor and offers heightened levels of support to the community.

At a cost of $1.1 million this year, inRESPONSE not only provides one-time, acute crisis response. It also includes a team of system navigators, staffed by the nonprofits Buckelew Programs and Humanidad Therapy and Education Services, which follow up after emergency incidents and operate a nonemergency hotline anyone can call to find outside resources and services.

“I’m so excited to be a part of it,” Cregan said following the meeting. He hopes the other leaders, agencies and nonprofits collaborating on inRESPONSE feel they are “making history for the city of Santa Rosa and making a program that is becoming a statewide model.”

Challenges, expansion plans

Though community feedback was largely positive Monday night, several callers commented on the lack of public awareness of the inRESPONSE program more than four months in.

Educating residents about the new program has been among the team’s chief challenges, Cregan said.

“Regularly, I still talk to community members who don’t even know about this team,” he said. “We need to do more to educate our community on resources that are accessible and how to access them.”

Cregan said he has done more than 40 community presentations on inRESPONSE and is regularly present at neighborhood or city events. He plans to have a booth up at Santa Rosa’s Wildfire Ready Resource Fair at Old Courthouse Square on May 21, and the van will be present in the local Pride Parade and Juneteenth celebrations.

“We want to encourage people: if you have a community event and you want the team there, we will do our best,” Cregan said.

Staffing and manufacturing shortages, a problem across public and private sector industries, have also disrupted the progress toward the goal of operating on a 24/7 basis by the end of 2022. Vans ordered months ago to join the fleet have only just been delivered and are currently being equipped. Meanwhile, the city is seeking to hire a dedicated inRESPONSE paramedic, while the county continues to recruit clinical social workers.

Cregan hopes to hire enough staff for another crew and increase coverage to 15 hours a day, seven days a week by July so that they can integrate with schools by the time students return from summer break.

You can reach Staff Writer Emily Wilder at 707-521-5337 or emily.wilder@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @vv1lder.

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