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Could Orange County elected officials’ years-long efforts to arrest their way out of homelessness be coming to an end? 

More and more cities this year have moved forward with programs that use social workers — not cops — to respond to non-emergency 9-1-1 calls related to brewing or potential homelessness and mental health crises. 

That now includes the cities of Fullerton and Buena Park, where officials are moving to establish their own program through a joint, regional partnership that the cities hope to expand in size and hours as they seek out more funding.

The effort, known as Project HOPE, will come online by July 1, 2021, according to city staff.

They join the cities of Garden Grove, Huntington Beach and Anaheim, which have also done so this and last year. 

At the county level, 2nd District Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley has said it should be the County of Orange making this push and that it shouldn’t have to fall on or come at the cost of local municipalities. 

“Some cities are spending upwards of $1.5 million to pay for social workers and mental health providers in their cities because” the county isn’t paying for it, said Foley at the Board of Supervisors’ June 8 meeting, where she and her colleagues were discussing the budget. 

She said it’s on the county to foot the bill: 

“The county should be responsible for mental health services in Orange County. Our cities should not be burdened with the cost of mental health services. They don’t have funding sources coming in to pay for those services.”

It comes as many cities are now considering what civil rights and homeless advocates have said for years: Officers with guns often aren’t the best fit when it comes to responding to situations where people may be living with mental health issues or substance abuse problems. 

Such people, advocates argue, are who law enforcement is designed around criminalizing in the first place, especially when they’re homeless.

And local police chiefs around the county have acknowledged in recent months that such situations — where officers respond to these calls — tend to escalate when someone wearing the badge arrives on scene. 

The idea between both Fullerton and Buena Park appears to have been brewing as early as late last year.

“I don’t think a community can arrest its way out of homelessness,” said Buena Park Mayor Connor Traut in a Thursday interview. “Sometimes you need these experts responding to calls for service.”

The City of Santa Ana, which is seen as the epicenter of the county’s homelessness crisis and its orbiting criminal justice debates, is also sniffing around the concept, with city officials announcing at a June 3 budget hearing that they planned on touring the campus of Be Well OC, one nonprofit operating a 9-1-1 call diversion program.

Santa Ana officials already contract with CityNet, where workers usually accompany police to these types of calls or connect homeless people with services. Though the city hasn’t gone as far as diverting certain 9-1-1 calls away from cops entirely.

Throughout the month of March, the city’s “Quality of Life Team” — which consists of staff from the police department and others — issued 89 homeless-related citations and made 15 arrests, according to Santa Ana’s homeless services data dashboard.

Buena Park and Fullerton council members plan on hiring a set of specialists to run their program, which will operate out of a facility in Fullerton near St. Jude’s Hospital, according to Traut. 

The program will not only send city-hired specialists out to non-emergency calls, but will have those workers issue referrals for people into the care they need with follow-ups to make sure they haven’t fallen through the cracks again, Traut said. 

It’s similar to what Garden Grove City Council members voted on last month, approving a $1.3 million contract with Be Well OC, a mental health nonprofit with a hospital located in Orange. 

Be Well OC would most commonly intervene in the types of calls known as “welfare checks,” which could deal with anything from calls about a homeless person sleeping in the park to a mental health crisis in some family’s house.

Part of the Garden Grove council vote included the approval of a mobile response team for the nonprofit to go around and respond to calls expeditiously. The non-emergency response team would consist of crisis workers paired with an EMT. 

There may still be instances where such calls related to mental health or homelessness involve an armed person.

“If something more dangerous should come on that particular call they’re on, when we talk about a person screaming at no one on the street, we know there’s an opportunity there for that to escalate into something that could be violent,” said Garden Grove Councilmember Stephanie Klopfenstein before her city voted on May 25 to join the Be Well OC program.

The city’s police chief, Tom DaRe, said officers will be ready to serve as backup and provide safety to the nonprofit team, though he emphasized it’s typically the presence of the officers that escalates things: “When we go on scene, everything changes, because of the uniform.”

Unlike Garden Grove, however, Buena Park and Fullerton’s regional 9-1-1 call diversion program will be run in-house, without any nonprofit contractor. 

The cities are tapping into Community Development Block Grant funds to power the program, which in its current state will operate on a part-time basis and could come online as soon as July 1. 

Traut, Buena Park’s mayor, said there are ongoing efforts to obtain more funding through the County of Orange’s “Continuum of Care” program designed to help municipalities address their local homelessness issues. 

If they’re successful in obtaining that cash, Traut said, the cities’ regional program could run on a full-time, 24/7 basis. 

“This one’s a done deal in the sense that our two cities are partnering and putting the money toward it,” Traut said. “What’s not a done deal is the idea of expanding this model and have it be more than just run by part-time positions.” 

“We want to get those Continuum of Care dollars so we can respond to more types of calls.”

All these programs are largely inspired by the landmark CAHOOTS program in the City of Eugene, Oregon, which similarly deployed a mobile, crisis intervention program consisting of teams of medics and trained mental health workers.

Annette Mugrditchian, the chief of operations for behavioral health at the Orange County Health Care Agency, told Voice of OC in an interview that “the CAHOOTS model has been very successful and is well known.”

The Health Care Agency currently operates a Crisis Assessment Team (CAT), which provides 24-hour mobile response services to any adult experiencing a behavioral health crisis, according to the team’s page on the county website. 

On top of that, staff at the agency’s Psychiatric Emergency and Response Team (PERT) are mental health clinicians who ride along with police officers to respond to mental health-related calls in their assigned city. 

PERT “conducts risk assessments, initiates involuntary hospitalizations when necessary, and provides resources and education with outreach and follow-ups,” according to its website.

Though Mugrditchian said the CAHOOTS model is “very different” from what the county currently offers.

“CAHOOTS is not a crisis response. It’s pre-crisis.”

Reporter Nick Gerda contributed to this story.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord

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