Christopher Jones used to work at a mental health crisis facility in Fife, where he saw patients referred by police or hospital staff. If that was the second half of managing a crisis — treatment in a controlled environment — these days he sees the first half, in a distinctly uncontrolled environment.
Jones is one of six behavioral health specialists who make up Olympia’s new Crisis Response Unit, or CRU, the latest effort from the city to change conditions in downtown. CRU is designed in part to keep people who are acting out because of mental illness or substance use from ending up jail, with staff trained to de-escalate situations, evaluate a person’s needs and connect them to help if they want it.
CRU members have been on the streets since January but the program officially launched in April. Dressed in polo shirts with CRU’s logo and carrying police radios, they are sometimes mistaken for police, corrections officers or county health workers.
Olympia contracted with Recovery Innovations International, which runs the Fife facility, to staff CRU at an annual cost of $497,000 plus $110,100 in startup costs, paid for through the public safety levy voters passed in 2017.
In its first two months, the unit went on nearly 700 calls, more than half of them initiated by a CRU member, according to numbers provided by the city. Another 73 calls were referred by police or fire crews and 63 came directly from emergency dispatchers.
The vast majority of people they came in contact with were homeless, and the most common presenting problem was related to mental health.
Not every interaction is a crisis. Similar to police officers who work on foot downtown, CRU sees a lot of the same people every day, getting to know their behavior and routines. David Gervais, a CRU member, says he has gotten calls about people who appear to be in crisis when in reality that is a normal day for them.
“To someone who has never encountered them, never seen them before, it looks like they’re just out of it, having a moment,” he says.
On a recent morning, Jones and Gervais are walking near the bus station when a man named Michael flags them down. They’ve talked to him before, but he seems off today.
“You get in touch with your daughter?” Jones asks him.
Michael doesn’t really answer. He starts talking about Janet Jackson and seeing the devil and needing a bus ticket to get out of the city, all the while staring off into the distance. Later Gervais makes a note about Michael’s behavior.
CRU members can hand out bus passes or give people rides to medical services or to a shelter, for instance. In the back of CRU’s van are granola bars, juice boxes, diapers and blankets; at its office are boxes of shoes and socks and clothes to hand out.
On occasion CRU members carry cigarettes, which can be a good way to get someone to stand still, take a breath and focus their attention.
CRU isn’t meant to be a free ride or a cigarette hookup, but sometimes that is what it takes to de-escalate a situation, says Anne Larsen, outreach services coordinator for the Olympia Police Department who oversees CRU.
More intensive help, such as placement in an inpatient facility, is voluntary, meaning the client needs to want it.
On the streets
The morning is off to a slow start for Jones and Gervais. They check on the city-run homeless camp on Olympia Avenue Northeast, then on a call about a woman acting “ridiculous” at a Capitol Way motel. (She is trespassed by police but not arrested.) Waiting in line for coffee, Jones chats with Mia, an older woman he sees regularly, who tells him she wants to leave Olympia because all her friends here have died.
Around 10 a.m., Olympia Parks staff calls Jones to check on a man they just kicked out of Yauger Park on the west side. As the pair walk to the CRU van to drive over there, they are stopped on the street by a man named Mike who tells them he was kicked out the city’s tiny home village for homeless people that morning.
Mike launches into a rambling half-rant about a stolen bike, a sick friend and a fight with the village security guard. “If someone told you to do something over and over, wouldn’t that irritate you?” he asks.
He thinks he has a place to move into in a few days, but he’s worried about where to store his belongings until then. Gervais offers temporary storage at the CRU office, and after a 20-minute talk, Mike seems to have calmed down.
Still walking to the van, a barefoot man stops Jones and Gervais across from City Hall. He says his wallet and cellphone, along with his shoes and socks, were stolen overnight. Jones introduces himself and is still trying to assess the situation when the man hands Jones car keys, which he says are a gift.
Jones freezes, surprised by this, and tries to steer the conversation back to the missing shoes, but the man kind of loses interest, they shake hands and he walks away.
Jones and Gervais take the keys to the police station and tell the story to an officer. He in turn gives them the description of someone he is looking for, a tall guy with a beard he thinks hangs out downtown.
The CRU team stops at their office to find the barefoot man shoes and socks before heading to Yauger Park. On the drive, Jones asks Gervais what the officer wanted the bearded guy for.
“I didn’t ask and I don’t want to know,” Gervais says.
As health care providers working alongside police, there is the potential for their interests — a client’s well-being versus enforcement of the law — to come into conflict. OPD’s Larsen says that hasn’t happened yet, but in such a case, CRU members should do what’s best for the client.
“They are not snitches, they are not used to gather information to get someone arrested,” she says. “We address the behavioral health, not the criminal aspect of people’s behavior.”