DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) — Durham has unarmed responders that can handle a mental health crisis or quality of life calls, but not everyone can access it. Community advocates and some city leaders said that needs to change, but there’s the question of if there will be enough money in the FY 2023-24 budget to do that.
Dozens of people rallied outside City Hall ahead of Monday night’s council meeting to push for more funding in the next budget for the city’s HEART program, which short for Holisitc Empathetic Assistance Response Team. People also pushed for the funding during the first public hearing on the budget. They want to see the program cover the entire city, right now it’s in these 12 police beats. They also want the program to run 24/7.
Kyla Hartsfield is a member of Durham Beyond Policing and Black Youth Project 100. She said it’s important for her to have someone other than police show up in a crisis.
“This is another option for me where I don’t have to actually sit into my danger moment and weigh the options of like will I be in more danger by calling the police and I don’t have any options, or will I be in more danger in the situation I’m in now, and this offers options,” Hartsfield said.
The four pilot programs that make up HEART are embedded mental health clinicians in the 911 center, teams of three unarmed responders for non-violent mental health or quality of life calls, co-response teams which are a clinician with a Crisis Intervention Trained police officer for calls with a greater safety risk, and a follow-up care team.
Since the pilot began in late June there have been 23,000 eligible calls, according to the city’s Community Safety Department. During that time, the crisis team responded to 4,680 calls, about 35% of that was handled over the phone by the embedded mental health clinicians in the 911 center, according to data from the Community Safety Department.
According to the Community Safety Department, some reasons the eligible calls were not responded to were not enough staff, the call being out of the coverage area, or hours of operation.
Leah Whitehead works in homelessness services. During the public hearing she shared a story about someone who HEART brought to her.
“It was a beautiful moment where dreams kind of became reality, and that neighbor walked in and she was so proud to be rolling in with such a strong team,” Whitehead said. “She shared to anyone who would about how HEART was able to help her both in the moment of crisis and beyond.” Councilmember Javiera Caballero is one of several councilors who want to see the whole city have 24/7 coverage.
CBS 17 asked if there’s enough money in the budget to do that.
“I think that that’s a conversation that we still have to have; we will not pass the budget until June, so there are several months to work through,” Caballero said.
HEART is under the Community Safety Department which received $4.8 million in the last budget. CBS 17 asked Caballero if there’s a number she has in mind for fully funding it, and she said not at this time.
The council will finalize a budget in June.