SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (KRON) – The city of San Francisco is about six months into a pilot program that is taking a new approach when dealing with 911 calls involving mentally disturbed people on the streets — One that does not involve law enforcement.

KRON4’s Maureen Kelly tagged along with one of five teams that are spread out around the city tackling what’s become a very visible problem.

A community paramedic with the Street Crisis Response Team is making sure her rig is packed up with supplies as they respond to their first call of the day.

“We are going through far more Narcan than we ever have simply because fentanyl requires that we give more Narcan per overdose,” Mary Meraw said.

She is joined by a mental health clinician and a peer counselor, who has first-hand experience with what it’s like to live on the streets.

“I’ve experienced homelessness, I’ve had involvement in the criminal justice system, I’m a recovering drug addict so I check a lot of boxes,” Roland Brower said.

They are responding to 911 calls involving non-violent mentally disturbed people — The pilot program is a collaboration between the city’s fire and public health departments.  

It was launched by Mayor London Breed soon after the national outrage over the murder of George Floyd in an effort to rethink public safety.

Each Street Crisis Response Team costs $1.7-million — There are five now spread out across the city and a sixth team will be added to work overnight to help provide coverage 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by the end of July. 

“Our goal is for these six teams to be able to divert the roughly 10,000 calls that we expect that are coded as a mentally disturbed person away from a police department response,” Dr. Angelica Almeida said.

“It might be urgent psychiatric care but not emergency care which lessens the load on the hospital, it could be shelter, it could be primary care appointments, it could be anything, it could be food it could be water and blankets, whatever it is to meet their need at that moment we will do it,” San Francisco Fire Captain April Sloan said.

The teams also check in with those they see on the street who look like they could be in crisis, they approached this man because he’s wearing a coat much too warm for the weather.

The team is trained in dealing with people in crisis who may have had previous negative encounters with those in uniform. 

“A lot of tools that we would use in the moment might be crisis de-escalation, really allowing them to be heard, allowing them to feel validated, trying to understand the underlying for them in the moment. Oftentimes people are in psychiatric distress there could be very basic needs that are not being met in that particular moment that’s leading to the psychiatric crisis, sometimes it’s as simple as getting someone water,” Shari Lachin said.

A man was given some water and socks and left where he was. The most recent city data shows that of the approximately 1,500 calls, they’ve responded to so far too 59% of the clients, have their crisis averted safely, and remained where they were found.

The goal is for the city’s office of coordinated care to circle back to try and connect them to services.

17% have been taken to the hospital and another 17% have been linked to things such as shelters, detox, or sobering centers. 7% have been placed under involuntary psychiatric hold for up to 72 hours, otherwise known as a 5150.

“There are days where we feel we are putting band-aid on gunshot wounds but then we will have those days where we will connect a couple of people to services and we have a great office of coordinated care and they will follow up with the person and we will hear from them that the person is thriving in the community or thriving in whatever setting they are placed in. It’s challenging but it’s rewarding,” Brower said.

While we were out, the fire department’s public information officer spotted a person who was having a hard time staying upright and summons the team over. 

The paramedic checked him out, while Maureen Kelly checked in with his friend who said he gets high but usually not this high — So to err on the side of caution, they gave him some Narcan.

But the Narcan he was given didn’t keep him from slipping back into unconsciousness and an ambulance team was called in to bring him to the hospital.

“With the strength of the fentanyl that’s on the streets now, it’s almost Narcan resistant,” a man said.

They gave out another box of Narcan to the patient’s friend who was grateful for the help.

“Saved my boys’ life because I wouldn’t know what to do,” the friend said.

The city is looking to add other specialized teams to deal with those problems associated with chronic homelessness. 

The mayor is proposing to fund teams that would specifically intervene after an overdose and other teams focused on well-being checks for people who may need medical help and shelter but aren’t experiencing a mental crisis.

The coalition on homelessness is also calling for funding for an approach to handling 911 calls that are low priority and nonviolent, such as a complaint about someone sleeping in a doorway, where the community leads civilian teams would show up instead of armed officers.