Pittsburgh finalizes $9M partnership geared toward enhancing mental health response

Pittsburgh police will work with the ROOTS team to provide assistance for those experiencing substance abuse issues, mental illness and homelessness


Photo/Wikimedia Commons

By Megan Guza
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh will spend more than $9 million over two years to expand a pilot program meant to meet people who need help — with substance use, with mental illness, with homelessness — where they are, even if that’s out on the streets.

City council members voted Wednesday on a bill that will finalize the contract between the city and Allegheny Health Network for the ROOTS program, which stands for Reaching Out in the Streets. All seven of the council members in attendance voted in favor of the bill. Members Bruce Kraus and the Rev. Ricky Burgess were not present.

Lee Schmidt, director of the city’s Public Safety Department, explained previously that the program also offers law enforcement an avenue outside of arrest.

“It gives the police a tool to utilize when they have someone who is not necessarily doing anything criminal but needs some assistance,” he said during a Dec. 19 standing committee council meeting. “Instead of police or medics having to take someone to the hospital or jail, the ROOTS team will respond or at least provide services.”

The program has been in the pilot stages for more than a year while the contract — announced in 2021 by former Mayor Bill Peduto — awaited signatures.

The legislation authorizing the contract came at the 11th hour: The contract had to be signed by year’s end, Mr. Schmidt said earlier this month, lest it become null. If that happened, he said at the time, his department would have been left searching for a Plan B.

The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment elaborating on why the finalization of the contract took the time that it did.

The pilot program saw outreach centers, or hubs, set up in three of the city’s six police zones: Downtown in Zone 2, on East Ohio Street in Zone 1 and on Frankstown Avenue in Zone 5. They offer medical and psychiatric services, among other resources.

The contract will allow funding — which comes from the city’s American Rescue Plan Act allocation — to go toward three more hubs and other resources like vehicles. Those things had been on hold while the attorneys worked through the contract.

In mid-December discussions ahead of recommending the bill, some council members expressed concerns about tangible results.

“That $9 million is a lot of money that could pay for a lot of police officers,” council President Theresa Kail-Smith said. “Although we want to try to go different ways and different routes, I really hope we deliver this year on some significant changes.”

She said there seems to have been myriad outreach programs but few results.

“I know there are so many efforts but all I want to see is results,” she said. “I don’t want to hear about another kid getting shot, I don’t want to hear about another homeless person hurting another homeless person or somebody hurting one of them.

“I want to see results delivered for our residents and for our businesses.”

Mr. Schmidt said one of the key pieces of the outreach program is the follow-up. Often, he said, when first responders interact with someone and connect them to social services, they never know the outcome.

"(A key component) is consistent case conferencing with our police, with our medics, so they can see the successful outcomes,” he said. “The communication is there so when they see that person again or engage with that person again, they’ll know what happened.”

The legislation comes as Pittsburgh faces a continued homelessness crisis. The long-touted Second Avenue Commons — a 95-bed shelter offering a primary care clinic and daytime engagement center — opened in mid-November and was already using overflow space within weeks.

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