Responders seek new mental health approach

The number of mental health-related emergency calls has increased significantly in the last two years, police said, prompting a fresh approach for tackling the problem.

With the beating death of a mentally ill homeless man by two Fullerton police officers in July still fresh in the minds of the region’s police agencies, the upward trend in Burbank of encounters with people with mental health issues is pushing officials to initiate a collective response among local nonprofit and healthcare providers to target familiar faces on the streets.

Officials say that typically it is a small proportion of the mentally ill homeless that take up most of their resources in terms of calls for service and emergency response, sapping valuable resources for other public safety issues.

“The high-risk folks we see again and again and again and we know [it’s] associated with quality of life issues,” Police Capt. Mike Albanese said. “They are homeless, or have mental health problems.”

Calls involving mental health issues have increased by about 25% over last year, a year in which mental health-related calls also grew by about 25%, Albanese said.

“Last year we thought, ‘Wow these are big numbers,’ and we contacted the Los Angeles County Department of Health,” Albanese said. “Everybody has had an uptick. The uptick varies, but there has been an increase.”

“There are over 389 mental health-related interventions this year to date,” Albanese said. “There are more (interventions) year-to-date than all of last year and we expect that number to continue to grow.”

The calls typically involve mental health interventions that require police to get a person to a mental institution where he or she can be evaluated. That’s a challenge for police agencies that are strapped for resources, Albanese noted.

In July, police met with community organizations that assist the homeless or that might be able to provide referrals for various social services.

Among the community organizations in attendance were the Burbank Temporary Aid Center, the Family Service Agency of Burbank, the YMCA, a representative from the Burbank Unified School District, Family Promise, and the Burbank Ministerial Assn.

Barbara Howell, executive director of the Burbank Temporary Aid Center, said the collaboration with Burbank police was still in its infancy and that agency officials would be recommending ways to refine homeless outreach efforts.

She said there were about 125 homeless people in the city when she started working at the agency seven years ago.

But now, she said,

“We see 400 to 450 homeless people on regular basis and serve 2,500 households that are not homeless.”

The increase, she said, is due to a number of factors, including overcrowding in the shelters in downtown L.A. and funding cuts for programs for homeless people, with the result that there are more people who are vying for same limited services.

Also, she said, “Some people who now are homeless were just hanging on, even when the economy was doing well, and in the last few years they have found themselves on the street. A lot of the people we are seeing now are newly homeless.”

The focus of the collaboration with police would be on a handful of homeless people that were really struggling, Howell said. It’s that group who takes up most of the Police Department’s time, she said, prompting multiple calls for service when officers could be responding to more important public safety issues.

Although the collaboration was still in its infancy, Howell said she was optimistic that it would have an impact.

“I have great hope for this,” she said. “My vision would be that, working together with Capt. Albanese and his staff, we may actually be able to chip away at the problem.”

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