NEW HAVEN, Conn. (WTNH) – 911 calls will no longer be taken by just first responders in New Haven. On Tuesday, Mayor Justin Elicker launched a new mental health crisis response team that is ready to serve the city’s most vulnerable.
At the New Haven Green, city leaders announced the launch of Elm City Compass, a mental health crisis response team that will go to 911 calls and will complement the police and fire departments.
“Big picture here, it’s the right person at the right time with the right skills that will be able to respond at the right moment,” Elicker said.
After two years of careful planning, New Haven is ready to respond to 911 calls and put residents’ mental health first.
“We know that mental health is a crisis nationwide,” said Justin McCarthy, New Haven assistant fire chief. “We aren’t immune to it here in New Haven.”
Elicker said the murder of George Floyd in 2020 sparked the city initiative.
“We are doing something only a few cities across the U.S. are doing,” said Jack Tebes, director of Elm City Compass.
Tebes leads the pilot program Compassionate Allies Serving Our Streets, which will include licensed social workers and a peer recovery specialist, ready to provide crisis intervention and counseling, harm reduction support, and referrals.
“This is about people caring for each other in our community,” Tebes said. “First responders, people with lived experience with mental illness and addiction, social workers all going out.”
The crisis response team will be dispatched to 911 calls for non-emergencies, supporting residents struggling with drugs, alcohol, and housing.
“A lot of times, we deal with homelessness,” McCarthy said. “They aren’t dealing with a medical emergency, right? Somebody passing by sees someone, that is a perfect example.”
During this pilot program, the mental health crisis response team will respond to 911 emergencies seven days a week between the hours of 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.
They will be collecting data over the next year to determine the program’s impact on the residents served. The city is hopeful that it will be here to stay for the long run.
A similar team was launched in Hartford earlier this year and has seen some success already. The “HEARTeam” has been responding to mental health calls for six months now. City officials said it’s already working to help people who are struggling.
Similar to New Haven, they send mental health workers and peers to 911 calls, many times without police. From April through September, they’ve responded to 316 calls where someone was in emotional distress.
“I think one of the unique things about our program is the use of peers, so you have someone with lived experience who can relate to what you’re going through and can use that story to make that kind of connection with you and we’ve seen that work very effectively,” said Patricia McIntosh, City of Hartford director of community safety and wellness.
Their average response time is about 15 minutes, whereas police might take hours to get a call about a mental health crisis.
Steve Werlin, the executive director of the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen, said that those experiencing homelessness have mixed reactions to police.
“Asking law enforcement to be social workers is not the right approach,” he said. “We need people who are especially trained in this sort of work to be deploying those skills that they learned to address those sorts of problems.”
Rick DelValle, who founded New Beginning and Redemption House, a group of sober living facilities in New Haven, said the team can bring those in need to him.
“We can get them here, get them in a safe place, get them in an environment of recovery with peer support, that’s when change can really happen,” he said.