A plan to divert police away from situations better handled by social workers has become so popular that the agencies operating a local crisis diversion service are working over capacity.
Calls to 211 — a public hotline that sees social agencies dispatch workers in outreach vans to help people who are in distress — have swelled since the program’s inception in 2015, pushing teams to respond to about 26 per cent more calls per month than they have the resources for.
“People really wanted to help when they saw someone in distress, but they intrinsically knew that calling 911 wasn’t the best thing to do,” said Jan Fox, executive director of REACH, a public safety organization that helps different agencies co-ordinate community services.
The 24/7 crisis diversion teams also get referrals from police and emergency medical services (EMS), but 70 per cent of their calls are now coming from 211. By the end of 2018, the teams were to have responded to 14,000 “social disorder” cases just this year.
A funding increase approved by council during its budget deliberations in early December means the agencies will be able to properly staff the service that had much higher demand than anticipated, said Fox.
Steered by REACH — Edmonton’s council for safe communities — the actual on-the-ground work is carried out in concert between vans operated by Hope Mission and Boyle Street Community Services. Together, the two agencies operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The teams are dispatched to help when calls come in about a person in distress — whether agitated by intoxication, experiencing mental health challenges, or sleeping outside in frigid weather — so that they can intervene and try to get the person somewhere safe.
But Fox said what’s really exciting is that council also approved money for a “connector” role — a person who will follow up with clients in crisis, especially those who are repeat users, and offer them services that could put them on a long-term path to better health and safety.
Fox said she knew it was a tough budget year, but she commends council for being willing to put money up front into what REACH argues will be a worthwhile return on investment.
According to documents submitted as part of REACH’s proposed operating budget, every $1 spent on crisis diversion service yields $1.91 in social return on investment.
Freeing up police to deal with more specialized tasks saves money and resources, and it also stymies “criminalizing poverty,” Fox added.
When an officer is called to a social disorder incident, they have to run a check for warrants, Fox said. And often, people who are users of the service might have outstanding warrants for things like jaywalking, riding the LRT without a pass, or having open liquor.
“That’s their sworn duty. They have to check for that, and then they have to take them to jail,” Fox said.
And Fox explained that despite the best efforts of many well-meaning officers, some people, especially when they’re already agitated, will have a negative reaction to a uniform.
The agencies that operate the crisis diversion service will meet in January to determine the best rollout for the increased funding, to buoy the teams most understaffed or facing the highest demand.
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