Opinion: Jail alternatives benefit homeless, mentally ill

David Heitz

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By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver

(Denver, Colo.) If you live in Denver, you no doubt have seen someone having a mental health crisis in a park. Many people experiencing homelessness utilize city parks as a place to rest during the day without breaking the law.

While there always are some bad apples, most homeless people enjoy a park just like everyone else and follow the rules. I thought I was following the rules when I fell asleep along the bluffs during broad daylight at 2 p.m. along the Platte River behind Salvation Army Crossroads homeless shelter. But it’s considered camping if you cover up with a blanket on public property in Denver, even in a park.

I was rudely awakened by police. They scared the hell out of me, and a struggle ensued. My response was very typical of someone with PTSD who was previously abused by police during a mental health crisis. Now I have a criminal record for resisting arrest.

It would have been so much better for all parties involved had that incident never occurred. Sending a mental health professional to assess why I was on the street, for starters, could have been life changing. I simply needed mental health treatment. It took a long time to get it, and interactions with police never improved the situation. Those interactions only led to more mental health problems.

STAR, first responders programs

These days, a team known as STAR responds to calls in Denver when people experiencing homelessness are having a behavioral health crisis. The team has been lauded by city officials for changing the way first responders address people having a mental health or addiction problem. The city voted last week to expand the program.

And now a similar program utilizing mental health professional from WellPower is coming to Denver parks, too. “This new partnership, the nation’s first park ranger and co-responder pairing, was created in response to the increase in vulnerable, unhoused people in parks who need support and connection to services,” according to a news release issued this week by WellPower.

Denver has a co-responders program separate from the STAR program, although both send a clinician. Co-responder programs send a police officer or park ranger, too. STAR sends a paramedic in addition to the clinician.

Responders have special training

The co-responders from WellPower receive training in de-escalation and crisis support. “WellPower, Denver’s community mental health provider, launched its co-responder program in 2016 with three clinicians working in a single police district,” according to the news release. “Today, there are 40-plus co-responders working with Denver Police, Denver Fire, Auraria Campus Police and RTD. These efforts are producing paradigm shifting results in public safety and connect people to care when they need it most.”

The idea to expand the co-responder program came about as clinicians found themselves going to parks frequently anyway.

In September 2022, Denver City Council approved the addition of two WellPower co-responders to work with the city’s team of approximately 40-unarmed park rangers.

Park rangers don’t pursue criminal charges

The Park Rangers issue violations that are administrative -- not criminal – “with the goal of ultimately gaining compliance with park rules, deescalating conflicts, and protecting our park resources,” according to Jodie Marozas, district park ranger supervisors. “Now with co-responders alongside us, we can offer immediate care to people who may be experiencing a mental health or addiction issue or are unhoused and in need of services.”

Chris Richardson, a licensed clinical social worker who oversees WellPower’s co-responder program, agrees. “Park rangers and co-responders are in alignment that longer-term, evidenced-based solutions are the best way to help people and protect the parks,” Richardson explains in the news release. “Just enforcing park curfews doesn’t solve the problem, and we commend the rangers for wanting to work together to provide trauma-informed solutions that can truly help the people seeking refuge in city parks.”

Co-responders will work alongside park rangers from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays.

Solutions Center an alternative to jail

The Denver City Council also will vote Tuesday whether to continue funding the Behavioral Health Solutions Center. A $3.7 million contract with WellPower would allow the city to operate the center through 2023.

The center provides an alternative to jail or an emergency room, which are costly and traumatizing. At the Solutions Center, clients receive treatment and are connected to services. They also receive short-term shelter.

I would languish in jail after interactions with police where I was behaving erratically. I needed help, not correction.

I applaud the city of Denver for the steps it has taken to improve its responses to people having a mental health crisis. I ultimately received excellent mental health treatment from the state mental hospital in Pueblo, where I was taken from jail and placed for several months.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at community newspapers in Southern California and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am proof that people can rebound from even severe mental illness with proper treatment. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living in the Mile High City. You can email me news releases and story ideas at NewsBreakDave@gmail.com

Denver, CO
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