NewsLocal News360 Reports


FOX 13 News 360: Salt Lake City experiments with innovations to address mental illness, homelessness

Posted at 10:49 PM, May 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-21 11:20:34-04

SALT LAKE CITY — It’s not uncommon to see or meet an individual who seems disoriented, especially on the streets and sidewalks of America’s urban centers.

Statistics from the Utah Department of Health and Human Services indicate that on any given day, there are about 15,000 people experiencing homelessness in Utah, the majority in Salt Lake City.

It’s unclear exactly how many people in this dynamic and shifting population are experiencing some level of mental illness.

Tracking and treating them seems an impossible task, but one that Salt Lake City and its police department have been exploring.

In 2016, Salt Lake City’s Community Connection Team was launched with funding from the Department of Justice, which also granted funds to five other police departments around the county willing to try a different approach to police work.

In Salt Lake City, part of that effort involves social workers responding to some 9-1-1 calls alongside police when the situation they are responding to includes mental illness, substance abuse, or people experiencing homelessness.

The Community Connection Team allowed FOX 13 to follow them for a day.

The first call of the morning for social workers Amelia Hilbert and Leo Avila was to a low-income housing complex.

“He is downstairs, shirtless, and he’s saying he needs an ambulance. He says there’s mice growing all in his body,” the 9-1-1 caller told a police dispatcher.

When the team arrived at his door, the man quickly said he’d like to go to a hospital to get a CAT scan.

After some kind and calming words, the detective who works with the team who is also trained in crisis intervention had a question: “When was the last time you used meth?"

The man replied quickly with what seemed an honest answer: “It was the night before,” he said.

From there, Hilbert explained to the man that his symptoms aren’t out of the ordinary for people who use methamphetamine or “spice.”

Rather than calling an ambulance for the man, or search his apartment for drugs, Hilbert’s partner had another suggestion.

“How about you take a nap, and then see how you feel after that nap. And then I’ll give you my card and you can call me if you’re still experiencing what you’re experiencing,” said Avila.

The man agreed, and the team soon left his building.

As the team left, Hilbert said: “He didn’t need to necessarily go to the hospital just so just someone that can validate that he’s having a rough time."

The next call they responded to involved a woman in distress outside a homeless shelter. She believed she’d been kicked out of the shelter and that someone has stolen her phone. The team helped her understand that neither of those things had happened.

“In her mind, she’s in crisis 24 hours," said Avila.

He’s very familiar with the woman in the shelter, who, according to police records, went to emergency rooms at Salt Lake area hospitals 17 times in the month of March.

Avila says the cost of each trip for taxpayers is a minimum of $1,500.

The team says the woman’s needs are mental rather than physical, so hospitals and emergency rooms are unable to help her. Instead, they are trying to assist her with case management.

After comforting the distressed woman, Avila offered an incentive to the woman if she’ll continue to work with case managers and reduce unnecessary hospital visits. That was in mid-April.

Just a few days ago, FOX 13 learned that the woman made only two trips to the hospital in April.

Salt Lake City actually tracks individuals who use emergency services the most. They have a “Top 20” list, which indicates the “Top 20” of 2020 collectively called for service from police, fire, or ambulance a total of 1,042 times.

Karen Montano, the manager of the Community Connection Team, is proud of the work done by her staff and believes they are making a difference in the lives of those they serve.

“Our social workers will do a lot of follow-up work,” she said as she described an average day for her team.

Montano said they typically respond to calls from roughly 8 a.m. to noon on weekdays, then spend the afternoons connecting with clients to assist with services such as therapy and drug detoxification, or assistance with food and housing.

The team does not currently work nights or weekends.

Salt Lake City has provided additional funding to keep the team going, but more funding would be needed if the team were to expand its hours or operations.

Montano says another thing that would help those suffering from mental illness would be more walk-in clinics where medication can be managed.

She says many of the people her team encounters have a history of mental illness and sometimes even know which medications work best for their needs. But lacking resources like insurance, transportation, or even a cell phone, leave them with nowhere to go, and allowing the illnesses to escalate.