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See how a Street Crisis Response Team takes on 911 mental health calls
10:31 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

It’s a sunny afternoon in San Francisco, and an agitated woman is screaming in the middle of the street, urgently pleading for help rescuing her daughter and granddaughter from a locked building on the corner of a busy intersection. She’s stopping traffic; saying she’s convinced they are going to die.

Behavioral health clinician Shari Lachin sees her and within seconds approaches the woman in distress, immediately engaging with her and attempting to deescalate the situation.

“Ma’am, let’s get out of the street and get safe,” Lachin says in a sweet, calming voice. “This must be so scary for you. We’re here now and we’re going to try and figure this out to help support you.”

When the woman says she’s hungry, Lachin’s colleague brings her a meal from McDonald’s. A quick diagnostic assessment confirms she’s suffering from psychotic delusions — including this particular one about her family being trapped.

Soon, they’re assisting her into the back of their van, and within 45 minutes she’s voluntarily checking herself into a psychiatric urgent care facility.

It is a successful ending to an episode that could have concluded much differently.

Street Crisis Response Team is launched

Behavioral health clinician Shari Lachin assists a woman in distress.

For the members of San Francisco’s Street Crisis Response Team, this is just another day at the office.

Lachin, a trained social worker, is joined on each shift by both a paramedic and a peer counselor. The mobile three-person response team is part of a joint collaboration between the San Francisco Fire Department and the city’s Department of Health.

The pilot program began on Nov. 30, 2020. They currently have two teams operating, from 7 a.m, until 9 p.m. every day – aiming for an expansion to 24/7 teams dispatched across the city by early summer.

For years, residents have been calling on the city to find meaningful solutions to rampant problems with homelessness and substance use disorder. In 2019, the city counted over 8,000 homeless people living in San Francisco. However, advocates say the actual number is likely much higher; surging since the start of the pandemic.

San Francisco's Street Crisis Response Team has responded to over 800 calls.

“We really want to reduce or eliminate law enforcement from going to non-violent calls or behavioral or social crises in which no crime has taken place,” said San Francisco Fire Department section Chief Simon Pang, who is leading this effort. “We’ve wanted to stand up a unit like this for some time, but with the events during the summer of 2020 things really reached a tipping point and city leadership decided it was time to get this done.”

Since the death of George Floyd, one of the fundamental rallying cries — to defund the police — centers on reallocating money away from law enforcement and into social programs promoting mental health treatment and crisis prevention.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed proposed allocating $4 million out of the city budget’s General Fund to create the pilot program. The money was not taken from the police budget.

The unit has responded to over 800 calls thus far.

A grandmother seeks justice

Addie Kitchen says she believes her grandson would still be alive today if a crisis response team had responded to his mental health crisis instead of police.

Across the Bay Bridge in Oakland, grandmother Addie Kitchen is being comforted by her friends and family outside a county courthouse, moments before heading inside to fight for justice in the death of her grandson Steven Taylor.

Taylor, 33, was shot and killed by a San Leandro police officer inside a Walmart on April 18, 2020.

Based on eyewitness accounts, Kitchen says she believes her grandson, a father of three, was suffering a mental health crisis during the deadly altercation.

Kitchen told CNN that in 2019 her grandson was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar depression. He was also homeless at the time of the incident.

She said he’d still be alive today if a crisis response team had responded instead of police.

“He was sentenced to death as soon as that officer walked in,” Kitchen said. “You mean to tell me to be Black and have a mental crisis is a death penalty?”

Steven Taylor had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar depression, his grandmother says.