There’s been a lot of talk in the media about defunding the police. I think it’s less about eradicating the police and more about offering an alternative to helping people in mental health crises that are non-violent. Here, in Connecticut, a person or family member in crisis can dial 211 and ask for mobile crisis to come out to their home. 211 offers a number of services including finding housing, utility assistance, mental health, senior services, covid-19 information, basic needs, healthcare, legal assistance, food insecurity and substance abuse. Run by the United Way, other states may have 211 programs set up. I talked to two people who help staff programs on both US coasts, which offer alternatives to calling 911.
The Living Room, Framingham MA
The Living Room is a place of warmth and friendship; an empathetic ear and a direction to services in the community. It is the place to go to avoid costly mental health visits at the emergency room.
The Living Room was open 24/7 until the pandemic hit. Now, it is open half that time, but they have a 24-hour hotline at (508)661-3333. Fully staffed by peer specialists, there is no force or coercion. It is a nice place to talk to someone about your crisis and have the peer specialist make suggestions or guide you two resources. No one on staff commands you to listen to them or tries to diagnose you. There’s a television, a small media library, internet access, laundry facilities, a kitchen (closed now due to pandemic), and a clothing closet full of clothes if you need a fresh change.
A Certified Peer Recovery Specialist (CPRS) is a person who has lived experience of a mental illness, substance use disorder or co-occurring disorder, who has made the journey from illness to wellness, and who now wishes to help others.
An Empathetic Ear
The staff at the Living Room make no decisions for the person. They only provide information. There is a quiet room and another living area with three recliners and two couches. Peer specialists must maintain a trauma-informed space.
They’ve got the word out by informing the local police departments about their service as well as through other provider agencies (the Living Room is a part of Advocates) and the spiritual community.
“We create an environment where people are treated kindly and with empathy, not like mental patients,” said Keith Scott, Vice President of Peer-Support and Self-Advocacy for the Advocates.
“This is not peer counseling—no advice is given,” said Scott. No advice, only an ear and maybe a suggestion.
Their Problems are Never Made Light of Here
They see people who hear voices, have severe depression, or maybe homeless. People can stay up to three nights.
“Without the Living Room as a resource, people would go to the ER, and especially for a sexual abuse survivor the ER is not always trauma sensitive,” said Scott.
Located at 284 Union Avenue in Framingham MA, the Living Room mainly sees the poor and disenfranchised, those living in mental health ghettos where access to services is limited. Staff will sometimes bring people to psych emergency services and the Living Room is located two blocks from a hospital.
The Living Room’s COVID Response
Now, through COVID, the Living Room recently opened up three weeks ago. While closed during the pandemic, they reached out to people through ZOOM groups. They offer a GLBT group, a group for people of color, a hearing voices group, and a suicide alternatives group. They also offer groups for gamers. This increased their access to people and name recognition in places like the Philippines.
Upon re-opening, they are open from 8AM to 10 PM. Staff use full PPE, masks, goggles, gloves, sanitizer, and disinfectant. They clean multiple times a day. Staff get their temperature taken and guests are asked questions.
Between July 2019 through the end of May 2020, they’ve had 4,340 interactions and 337 unique guests. The average length of stay is 1.3 hours; 34 hours is the longest length of stay.
Other states with similar projects are Illinois, California, New York, Virginia, and Texas. Massachusetts is starting to put contracts out for bid to open additional Living Rooms.
To find out more about Advocates, go to www.advocates.org.
Courtesy of W. Holderfield, White Bird Clinic
Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets (CAHOOTS), Eugene, OR
Marginalized people, people of color and others often don’t want to contact the police in a crisis. After years of abuse, they don’t trust them. Often what people need is to call in an alternative. CAHOOTS is one such service based out in Eugene, Oregon.
I spoke to Michelle Perin, cross-trained as a crisis worker and a medic, who works for CAHOOTS. The mobile crisis operation has three vans: one in Springfield, OR running 24 hours and two in Eugene OR, where the program originated. The vans are equipped with first aid materials, clothes, food, hygiene options, tents, and tarps. There is a space for the driver, a space for materials and a space in back to transport people to organizations to help their needs. The vans are now sealed off with plexiglass due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
Citizens Call in People in Crisis
Citizens will often call in problems to 911 and CAHOOTS will be sent out to de-escalate those calls where there are no threats of violence. They work with the police and are funded by the city.
“Most calls that come into police are social service calls,” said Perin. “That’s where we come in.”
A Partnership with Police
“We have a partnership with the police,” said Perin. CAHOOTS get the social service calls; the police get to be freed up for the harder stuff.
Some of the crisis they take on are changing wounds, helping parents with an out of control 12-year-old, family mediation, homeless people, and those contemplating suicide. “We go where we are asked–sometimes in a high-end neighborhood; sometimes in low income neighborhoods.”
They also go with the police and fire department to handle an overdose.
Saving the City Money on Mental Health Visits
“We save the cities money,” Perin said. The City of Eugene’s police budget funds them. They are also part of the White Bird Clinic, a non-profit with a socio-medical model of the counter culture 1960s. White Bird Clinic provides medical care, mental health and drug and alcohol addiction services, a dental clinic, and mobile crisis (CAHOOTS).
This Pilot Program Launches Elsewhere
“There are very few similar to our program through the public safety system,” said Perin. “In some places, a social worker and a police officer will go to a call together. We are the fourth arm of the public safety system.”
Crisis teams are starting to sprout up across the country. Albuquerque, New Mexico has something similar. Olympia, WA came to them and asked to build a model around CAHOOTS. Denver and Portland are working on programs like CAHOOTS.
When crisis happens such as the death of George Floyd and people talk about reinventing the police from the ground up, White Bird Clinic has been operating a safe, successful, humanistic program for 30 years.
Where to Call for Help
The crisis numbers to reach CAHOOTS are: for Eugene (541)682-5711 and for Springfield (541)726-3714. You can also ask for them by calling 911 and an Oregon area dispatcher will send them out. To find out more about CAHOOTS and White Bird Clinic, go to www.whitebirdclinic.org.