RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Following the civil unrest spurred by George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, the Raleigh Police Department began developing a program that focused on getting people help with mental health or social help rather than police intervention.
The City of Raleigh launched their ACORNS program in the same month of Floyd’s death. By that summer, the unit was staffed by police officers and social workers.
ACORNS stands for Addressing Crises through Outreach, Referrals, Networking, and Service. The program will include police officers and social workers who respond to appropriate calls. Its approach is described as “care and safety first, enforcement last.”
When responding to a call, police officers often find the person they’re called about may need more than a citation or a night in jail.
“We could respond to the 911 call. That’s putting a band aid on it,” said Raleigh Police Det. Wendy Clark, a member of ACORNS. Instead, Clark says she and the ACORNS unit focuses on connecting folks help rather than making an arrest.
“Making sure that they’re getting from point A to point B so that we’re not getting repeated calls for service,” said Clark.
That help includes finding food, shelter or other social services. Lt. Renae Lockhart leads the unit. She says they assist with tasks as basic as gathering crucial documentation for people in need of social services.
“An ACORNS officer even assisted with locating a birth certificate out of Europe. This individual, he thought he was born in the United States,” said Lockhart. She said officers are now helping that individual navigate the immigration office to obtain a identification card for benefits.
Since its inception, the department said they’ve received more than 1,000 calls for service. Of those, it says it has built connections with more than 500 people. ACORNS has received close to 400 people referrals by patrol officers.
“We’re prepared to walk on a journey with someone and we know we can take three steps forward and two steps back,” said Lockhart.
The unit’s biggest issue is getting individuals into permanent housing.
Chelsea Levy, a social worker on the unit, says affordable housing is creating a tougher barrier for people who are able to get housing vouchers. She said people often can’t find places that will take their housing vouchers and if they do, those places don’t have available units.
“Those vouchers are being recycled back to the Raleigh housing authority and those people are finding themselves still experiencing homelessness,” said Levy.
While that’s not an issue the unit can fix, police do plan on expanding its reach. This year, $800,000 has been budgeted to grow the unit.
Police Chief Estella Patterson said the money would be used to upgrade technology for the unit and to hire more social workers.
“We will place a social worker in each one of our six districts which we believe will provide an opportunity for those social workers to interact with our vulnerable members of our population,” Patterson said.
The unit does take referrals. To contact the ACORNS unit, call (919) 996-3345 or email firstname.lastname@example.org