Counselors trained in mental health crisis intervention are expected to begin responding to service request calls, assisting law enforcement with specific attention toward the homeless community in Newport Beach starting in December, as part of a 12-month pilot program. 

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Newport Beach is the second city in Orange County to partner with Be Well Orange County, an Orange-based organization that says it focuses on mental health, which includes providing specialized support for homeless individuals and residents in the county. Huntington Beach was the first city to work with the organization in September.

The Newport Beach City Council voted unanimously late last month to approve the program, which will be available for 12 hours every day. Two trained counselors from Be Well Orange County will operate the program from a van, according to a city staff report. According to Be Well OC, these counselors will also be able to provide the individual “non-medical transportation to appropriate support services.” 

Council members Dianne Dixon said she liked that anyone in the community and not just the homeless would be helped by the response team.

Newport’s new partnership with Be Well is expected to be in place for a year, where the focus will be on responding to the impact of the coronavirus on the growing homeless community, while also “assisting residents who may be experiencing a mental health crisis,” according to the city staff report. The city will evaluate the effectiveness of the service after a year.

While Newport Beach is learning from the experiences that Huntington Beach has had with its Be Well OC team, Newport will undergo a “learning period,” Carol Jacobs, the city’s assistant city manager, said during a council meeting presentation. The Los Angeles Times reported that the initial response to the pilot program in Huntington Beach has been positive, as Orange County officials have discussed the fiscal and social benefits that may result should this program become countywide, and, according to Huntington Beach City Manager Oliver Chi, city officials have tracked and reported specific requests for the Be Well OC van by police officers in certain situations.  

Newport Beach has joined the growing list of Orange County cities that have begun to delegate crisis response to trained professionals separate from the police or even the fire department. The trend originated from ongoing discussion about police involvement in mental health crisis calls, and whether de-escalation would be better done by trained civilians rather than armed officers, especially when it comes to the homeless individuals.

Late last month, Anaheim police shot and killed the cousin of Santa Ana City Councilman Jonathan Ryan Hernandez. Hernandez said he tried to tell officers that his cousin was having a mental health crisis and needed de-escalation, but was dismissed. Investigations, including one by the state Attorney General’s Office, are ongoing.

During the council meeting, Jacobs said dispatchers from the city’s police and fire departments will be working with the Be Well crisis team to figure out when it would be appropriate for the team to be present at the scene

  Jacobs said that the COVID-19 pandemic caused an increase in the homeless population, with an average of 60 homeless individuals in the city during the winter and 95 individuals during the summer. Over 80% of these individuals are living on the street, with over 10% residing in vehicles or recreational vehicles. Less than 40% have been homeless between three and 10 years, with more than 10% homeless for over 21 years.

As of September, a majority of these homeless individuals were male and between 45 years and 64 years of age.

The Be Well program services will be funded by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security or CARES Act and the city’s general fund, contributing $717,079 and $376,101 each, respectively, according to Jacob’s presentation. In addition, an anonymous resident donated $132,000 to pay for the van and initial stock of supplies.

Cindy Voorhees, a senior priest at the St. James Episcopal Church in Newport Beach, expressed her support for the service during the meeting.

“I’m dealing with teenagers who’ve lost time in high school that are, all of a sudden, changing personalities,” Voorhees said. “I deal with people that are afraid to call the police because they may be igniting the problems at home, where a Be Well van would show up with someone in plain clothes and be able to talk to them and reason with them, the families would definitely be able to feel more comfortable with that.”

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