In an effort to better serve the homeless, the mentally ill and others in distress, the St. Paul Fire Department is proposing an out-of-the-box solution.
Social workers, both embedded and on-call from local shelters, will roll out with first responders at all times to meet with the city’s most vulnerable residents. Organizations such as Catholic Charities, Listening House and Union Gospel Mission will provide immediate assistance to the city’s taxpayers at an annual cost of approximately $600,000.
“There is a gap in coverage,” said St. Paul Fire Chief Butch Inks, calling for a “24-7 social worker response team” that can serve as a citywide resource. “Our staff has been very active in helping the underserved cantonments. One of our deputy chiefs went from tent to tent during a blizzard, last Christmas Eve, to find some shelter for these residents. But for a sustainable scheme, this plan cannot be.”
The proposal, made at the end of his budget presentation on 8 September, seemed astonishing to the members of St Paul’s City Council. The Inks acknowledged that the $600,000 financial request for 2022 was still mostly a placeholder, as details of the social worker response program are still under development.
weight of city council members
The city council has generally been supportive of exploring ways to house the homeless and thinking more holistically about the public safety response, but their response was less than enthusiastic.
Addressing the Inks, Council President Amy Brendmon said, “The council has often expressed hesitation about budgeting for the program in 2022 or beyond, and this in particular has been a bit of a hot potato. “
Council member Jane Prince drew even more attention to her criticism of a plan, which was going on without heavy participation from Ramsey County, that employs its own social workers and seeks community reform, public financial aid, public health. , oversees social services and veterans services. .
The county also handles civil commitments, or involuntary hospital stays, through the county attorney’s office.
“I don’t want us to fill the social work role without asking for some involvement from the county,” Prince said. “The county needs to be a participant in this. If the county is not part of it, I would have a really hard time getting the city to take it on its own. “
Alternative Answers to 911
Inks, who promised the council they would come back with more details once in a while, said embedded and on-call social workers would aim to provide an alternative response to detox, emergency room visits or arrests.
While social workers will be supervised by the fire department, they can be accessed by St. Paul Police, St. Paul’s Department of Safety and Inspection, Parks and Rec and other city departments, he said. He said it was too early to determine how many social workers might be involved.
In an interview, Inks said, “We answer many calls where a person is down, and we don’t know if it’s a medical emergency.” “But we also respond to a stay-at-home person, we take them to the hospital, they get discharged from the hospital, and the cycle keeps repeating. … I think we can make a difference in a different way to help our residents.”
Saint Paul’s deputy mayor, Jaime Tincher, made a similar presentation to the city council on 8 September, saying that a city task force comprising Listening House, Safe Spaces and Catholic Charities will provide 24-7 services to those in distress. Looking for rapid response program.
Currently, calling 911 results in a police response, a fire response, or both, but not a response from people specializing in emergency housing and mental health resources.
Tincher recalled an incident where police and fire officers responded to a distraught woman standing in the middle of a city street. After lengthy negotiations, they managed to persuade her to board a public bus, which literally led to a human service crisis on the road.
“I am very proud of the way our police officers responded to this situation,” Tincher said. “However, we don’t know whether this has solved his needs. … If we had that (social service) team, could we have freed some of the emergency responders from being on the scene full time? Will it help provide more efficient deployment of law enforcement where it was needed most?”
some work is already in progress
Some of this work is already underway. Since 2018, the St. Paul Police Department has hosted three licensed clinical social workers and one licensed alcohol and drug counselor who respond with officers on certain calls and follow up, according to the department.
Paul Mayor Melvin Carter’s office and the “Community-First Public Safety” commission, the city is exploring alternative responses to low-level 911 calls, such as complaints about loud noises from individuals who are not armed officers. Responds to child abuse, vehicle theft, curfew violations and general welfare checks.
In law enforcement circles, there has been some pushback for the possibility of citizens responding to potentially dangerous situations that could escalate into a more serious call, eventually involving the police.
Overall, the fire department is seeking a general fund budget of $70.7 million next year, an increase of 3.8 percent over the current year.
The department is working with the St. Paul Port Authority to secure land for a $9 million replacement for Fire Station 7, which will be funded by the city’s capital improvement budget. Located on Ross Avenue south of Fallen Boulevard, the station was built in 1930 and is the third oldest fire station in the city.
Mara Gottfried contributed to this report.