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New SLO County mental health outreach to help people in crisis before they end up in jail

As San Luis Obispo County pursues avenues to keep people with mental illness or chronic substance abuse issues out of jail, officials announced a new federally funded program Wednesday to embed specially trained clinicians with sheriff’s deputies.

County officials announced at a news conference in El Chorro Regional Park Wednesday that the Behavioral Health Department and Drug and Alcohol Services applied for and received a $330,000 annual grant — guaranteed through 2023 — to fund the team that will join the Sheriff’s Office’s existing Community Action Team (CAT Team) to provide boots-on-the-ground services to people in the field.

“It’s a human-to-human encounter to help build trust and bring people who have been out — homeless, underserved — in to receive services and, hopefully, get them into housing,” said Anne Robin, director of the county’s Behavioral Health Department.

Specifically, the program funding allowed Behavioral Health to form a team of two full-time behavioral health clinicians, two half-time behavioral health case workers, and a supervisor to work closely with the Sheriff’s Office’s two existing CAT deputies who have a combined 18 years of law enforcement experience in the county.

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San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson, far left, with members of the new joint Sheriff’s Office and Behavioral Health Department Community Action Team at El Chorro Regional Park Wednesday morning. Behavioral Health Director Anne Robin is at far right. Matt Fountain mfountain@thetribunenews.com

That collaboration is designed to reduce impacts on the jail, emergency departments, and the 16-bed in-patient Psychiatric Health Facility.

“We know that this is an effective law enforcement strategy,” said Frank Warren, prevention and outreach manager with Behavioral Health. “It’s preventative in nature, it deals with our hardest-to-serve population in a very holistic and inclusive and kind manner, something that Behavioral Health really believes in. And we’re seeing the effects of that.”

The funding comes from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

The program itself was modeled after a similar one established in November among Behavioral Health, Transitions Mental Health Association and the San Luis Obispo Police Department that similarly embedded a social worker with officers who already have knowledge of the city’s most in-need residents.

Unlike that city program — which is smaller in scope and was funded by the state Mental Health Services Act — the county CAT Team’s grant states they will focus on people with multiple simultaneous disorders, as opposed to those who may experience an isolated mental health crisis.

“They are looking for individuals, many of our homeless and hardest-to-serve individuals, that have both a substance abuse and mental health disorder,” Warren said. “We took advantage of the fact that the Sheriff’s Office had established a community action team ... (who) are in the community, working with hard-to-serve, vulnerable populations, including our homeless population.”

One thing the Sheriff’s CAT deputies have been missing, Warren said, was actual mental health and substance abuse support on the ground.

“(The program) really seeks to have law enforcement work with our team in identifying individuals that can be checked in on before they’re called by some business owner for being in their space or being in somebody’s yard,” Warren said. “If they know an individual has had issues in the past, this team, who is not law enforcement, can do a check in ... and build a rapport and a relationship.”

County officials expect the new joint CAT Team will make contact with more than 280 individuals annually both on the streets and through ongoing participation in Behavioral Health services. There is also a case management angle to the program that will allow it to connect an appropriate client with services outside the county if needed.

Sheriff Ian Parkinson said the new program is one of several efforts the county is making to curb the numbers of mentally ill in the justice system. He called them “very positive steps.”

As an example, Parkinson said the jail last weekend undertook a large-scale rehousing effort in which many “at-risk” inmates were moved to one housing unit. Four new correctional deputies and a sergeant are assigned to the unit after applying for and being accepted by the department to work specifically with that inmate population, Parkinson said.

“Part of it is training those five, the four and the sergeant, to the level of what the CAT Team is going through, so they are the CAT Team in the jail,” he said. “The idea is to identify these at-risk people that have come in and try to identify services that are available in the community to get them out.”

The sheriff added that in the days since the rehousing, jail staff has “seen a significant change in behavior.”

The county is hoping to build on the successes the San Luis Obispo Police Department has seen with its program.

About six months after the SLO program’s launch, Capt Jeff Smith said by phone Wednesday that as of March, the department had made more than 300 contacts with more than 200 people. Of those 200 people, about 40 continued to work within the program at some level, Smith said, including about 25 involved in Behavioral Health programs and about 22 now benefiting from housing programs.

Behavioral Health Director Robin said at Wednesday’s news conference that her department and Drug and Alcohol Services will continue to aggressively pursue grant funding to make the new county program sustainable beyond the approved five years.

In the North County, the Behavioral Health team has been allotted space at the Atascadero Police Department to serve as a base to better reach residents there, Robin said.

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