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Orange County’s first mobile mental health crisis unit is in Huntington Beach

Elected officials stand in front of a Be Well OC mobile vehicle at Huntington Beach Civic Center Plaza.
From right, O.C. Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer, O.C. Supervisor Katrina Foley and Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr are joined by other elected officials in front of a Be Well OC mobile mental health crisis vehicle during a news conference on Thursday morning at Huntington Beach Civic Center Plaza.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Huntington Beach is pushing forward in the area of mental health.

Be Well OC in Huntington Beach, a mobile crisis response team with two trained counselors, had a soft launch on Aug. 2. Since then, city officials said about 330 calls have been fielded.

They could be people who call 911 to deescalate a family dispute or due to other mental-health or behavior-related issues. Previously, the police department would field these requests.

The city formally introduced Be Well OC in Huntington Beach at a press conference on Thursday morning. It’s the first mobile mental health response team in the county.

“Our first responders do an admirable job of addressing these types of calls,” Mayor Kim Carr said. “However, they receive over 15,000 calls like this every year [in Huntington Beach], and those calls divert time away from other public safety issues. Rather than continuing to send first responders to non-emergency mental health situations, Be Well OC will bridge that gap and serve the need immediately.”

Carr emphasized that the police department has not been defunded. Instead, the city is partnered with Be Well OC through a one-year pilot program that costs $1.5 million. City Manager Oliver Chi said the city was already looking into mobile response options by summer 2020 and had researched a similar program called Crisis Assistance Helping Out On the Streets (CAHOOTS) in Eugene, Ore.

O.C. Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer speaks during Thursday's press conference launching Be Well OC in Huntington Beach.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

But then Chi met Marshall Moncrief over coffee and saw the benefits of a partnership. Moncrief is the chief executive of Mind OC, the nonprofit that operates Be Well OC.

“Twenty minutes into the conversation, it was like, ‘Something is going to happen here,’” Chi said. “The movement that is Be Well, we have an opportunity here in Orange County to build a best-in-class, world-class mental health substance-abuse treatment program that currently just doesn’t exist.”

Be Well OC in Huntington Beach currently operates 12 hours a day, with one big, blue van deployed from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. “Hope Happens Here,” is written in large white letters on the side.

Chi said the city is planning to add another van by the end of the year so the service can be offered 24 hours a day.

The issue hits close to home for Orange County Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer, who spoke at Thursday’s news conference. He said his cousin Patsy was a paranoid schizophrenic, and he lived with her father when he was in law school.

“For far too long, the criminal justice system has been a dumping ground to solve society’s mental health and substance abuse issues,” Spitzer said. “We’ve used our jails and prisons to engage in mass incarceration because we didn’t have the systems in place to deal with people properly … We now have a template that we should and must extend throughout Orange County. You’re now the trailblazers, and you have the opportunity to explain to everybody else who makes policy in this county that this is possible.”

Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley said she agreed that this should be a countywide solution.

“Orange County cities don’t have a funding source for providing these services,” she said. “You’re required to lean in and solve a problem using your own general fund dollars. Thank you for doing that, but it’s time that the county step up and provide that assistance. You receive 15,000 calls for service in a year. Imagine that, times 34 cities. We need to have this model throughout Orange County.”

Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr speaks during Thursday's press conference launching Be Well OC at Huntington Beach.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Erin Brooke Lee said she was homeless for nearly three years, mostly living in her van, until a concerned business owner called to have a wellness check performed. The Huntington Beach Homeless Task Force responded first, but Be Well OC in Huntington Beach was then called.

“They worked with me for about a week,” said Lee, who now resides at the Navigation Center. “They brought me food, checked on me, asked if I needed anything. Every time they came back they offered a new resource, or a new offer. They were instrumental in pretty much taking away the fear.”

Chi said city officials have been tracking the response to the pilot program. Police officers are starting to specifically request the Be Well OC in Huntington Beach van in certain situations, he said.

“We’ve had a lot of training, a lot of things we’ve learned,” Chi said. “But I think the biggest takeaway from what we’ve seen so far is that there’s absolutely a need, and it absolutely is doing the things that we were hoping … It’s just insane when you see the level of need in the community.”

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