Calif. city to launch EMT, counselor team to respond to mental health calls

Officials said Huntington Beach's HOPE program is meant to supplement the efforts of homeless liaison officers and expand access to mental health care


Theresa Walker
The Orange County Register

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. — Come summer, Huntington Beach is expected to launch a mobile crisis response team to handle a variety of mental health and behavior-related calls for service, rather than dispatching police when no crime, violence, or event involving a weapon is unfolding.

The two-person civilian team — an emergency medical technician and a clinically trained counselor — is touted as the first such city program of its kind in Orange County. The city's HOPE (Helping People Out Everywhere) team will focus on mental health issues, reaching beyond the homeless population and serving all Huntington Beach residents.

Huntington Beach has announced it will launch a two-person team consisting of an EMT and a clinically trained counselor to respond to mental health calls, in collaboration with Be Well Orange County.
Huntington Beach has announced it will launch a two-person team consisting of an EMT and a clinically trained counselor to respond to mental health calls, in collaboration with Be Well Orange County. (Photo/Be Well OC)

"This could be someone living in a gated neighborhood, or a homeless individual who is suffering, and everything in between," Huntington Beach Police Chief Julian Harvey said.

Huntington Beach is part of a growing trend of cities and others shifting non-criminal crisis intervention away from law enforcement.

In March, the Orange County Sheriff's Department announced the formation of a Behavioral Health Bureau to provide deputies with additional training in behavioral and crisis intervention. Once trained, those deputies will work alongside county mental health clinicians and social workers. In January, Anaheim launched the unarmed Community Care Response Team of caseworkers to help homeless people living outdoors.

In Huntington Beach, the HOPE team will handle a variety of situations, including homelessness, drug and alcohol-related issues, non-violent disputes involving family members or neighbors, and calls about people in crisis as a result of mental illness.

The city hosted a public town hall on 6 p.m. on Wednesday, May 5, via the Huntington Beach Facebook and YouTube accounts. During the town hall, residents learned more about the HOPE project and Be Well OC, which is overseeing the one-year pilot under a $1.5 million contract.

The program represents a new partnership between the city and Be Well, the public-private entity that earlier this year began providing comprehensive on-site crisis intervention and longer-term residential treatment for people with mental illness and substance abuse disorders. With case management also built into the Huntington Beach program, people who interact with the HOPE team might end up at the Be Well campus in Orange.

Harvey stressed in a phone interview last week that the HOPE program does not represent any "de-funding" of the police department. Instead, it will supplement the efforts of homeless liaison officers and broaden help for citizens dealing with mental and behavioral health crises. For too long, Harvey said, police have been the default agency to handle such calls, and that the only available places to take many of those people were hospital emergency rooms.

"If it's not a violent incident or involving weapons or clear criminality, there really is no reason for us to be there," Harvey said.

The HOPE team could mean better outcomes for people in crisis. Harvey added the new team also would free up officers for traditional police work if they don't have to spend hours taking someone to an emergency room and waiting for their disposition. It also might reduce tension that can arise between police and the people they are meant to serve, sometimes leading to deadly consequences.

"They see us in uniform, and it can be provocative," he said, referencing what sometimes happens when police respond to social service-related calls.

"It changes the dynamic unnecessarily."

New program, old model

City Manager Oliver Chi is credited with laying the groundwork for the program. In April, when the Huntington Beach City Council approved the program on a 7-0 vote, Chi told council members the HOPE team could put the city on the cutting edge of better serving its citizens.

"It's not often that we get a chance to be part of a new effort that could radically change the context of how we respond to ongoing service demands in the community," said Chi, who took over as top administrator in Huntington Beach nearly two years ago.

Slightly more than half of the program's funding — $825,000 — comes from the American Rescue Plan Act that President Joe Biden signed into law in March, and the rest comes the Police Department Development Impact Fee Fund and the city's Restricted Restitution Fund.

The model for the HOPE team is a mobile crisis response program in Eugene, Ore., known by the acronym CAHOOTS, for Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, that's been credited with saving lives and money. For nearly 30 years, CAHOOTS has been staffed 24/7 by clinicians, not police, taking calls routed by 9-1-1 dispatch workers who've been trained to determine which calls should and shouldn't go to police. The CAHOOTS intervention teams travel in specially equipped vans with their logo on the sides, a process that's expected to be copied in Huntington Beach.

"It will be like the dispatcher saying, 'We understand your situation and we're sending HOPE out there,'" said Marshall Moncrief, chief executive officer of the nonprofit Mind OC who oversees the work of Be Well.

There's no firm date yet for the start of the Huntington Beach pilot program.

Moncrief, who lives in Huntington Beach and once served as director of neuro-behavioral health at Hoag Presbyterian Hospital, became familiar with CAHOOTS because he frequently visited Eugene, Ore., where his daughter attended college. Be Well has hired two people to supervise the HOPE team, including an experienced EMT who previously was part of the CAHOOTS program. Their work will be hands on.

"They won't be sitting in an office somewhere," Moncrief said. "They'll be on that van, out living this with their team."

Beyond Surf City

Be Well's plan is to start with limited hours and gradually ramp up. Decisions on how to develop the service will be based on data, and the program could expand beyond Huntington Beach into other communities in Orange County, Moncrief said.

The HOPE team also might assist police when they contact survivors about a loved one's death. "They might go with them to provide emotional support to the family," Moncrief said.

The team will provide basic first aid, and transport homeless people to get services at the Huntington Beach Navigation Center. They also will be ready to guide people seeking help with an addiction to appropriate resources.

Michael Wright, a former EMT who now runs the nonprofit Wound Walk OC, a five-year-old program in which Wright and other volunteers provide basic health care and information to homeless people staying in parks and other outdoor locations, believes the program might work. Wright, who lives in Santa Ana, brought his triage to Huntington Beach in March, and is glad to see the city embrace the idea of decriminalizing homelessness and switching to a crisis prevention model for mental health care.

"I am in LOVE with this idea," Wright wrote in an email. "Wound Walk is grateful that the City of Huntington Beach is looking to bring the kind of trauma informed care we practice to more people, more consistently."

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