Pittsburgh fire, EMS see decline in calls with opening of crisis response office
The Office of Community Health and Safety mental responds to behavioral health crises, overdose incidents and homelessness
By Julia Felton
PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh’s Office of Community Health and Safety has responded to more than 3,000 incidents citywide since its 2021 launch, according to information presented to City Council Wednesday.
The office is tasked with addressing various community needs, including mental and behavioral health crises, overdose incidents and homelessness, said Assistant Director Camila Alarcon. The office, which is housed within the city’s Department of Public Safety, works with other first responders and helps people to connect with additional resources.
OCHS launched its co-response program with the city’s police bureau in April. The co-response program began in the city’s North Side area and has since expanded into Downtown and surrounding communities, Alarcon said.
The program allows police to call for social workers to assist in responding to various incidents. Social workers can help with the initial response and provide additional follow-up services to try to avoid recurring problems, Alarcon said.
“We received a lot of buy-in, a lot of good feedback,” she said.
In the last three weeks, social workers on the Downtown co-response team have helped to prevent three people from committing suicide, reversed two overdoses, reunified two homeless people with their families and provided support for more than 90 migrants who were left stranded at a local bus station.
Since April, the city’s co-response team has served 107 patients. Most of them, Alarcon said, are referred because they need housing assistance or mental health services.
The office’s People in Need of Support, or PINS, program has helped to reduce the number of 911 calls where people request help for “things that are not necessarily 911 issues,” like requesting help to meet basic needs, Alarcon said. Community social workers in the program ride along with first responders and offer additional home visits to provide people with the help they need so they don’t resort to consistently calling 911 to address their problems.
“Our goal is to take that strain off of the 911 service and allow our first responders to respond to the emergencies that are needed,” Alarcon said.
She said fire and EMS have seen a decline in such calls since the program launched.
The office also has engaged with about 100 patients through its Trauma Survivor’s Assistance Program, which launched over the summer. The initiative offers support for people who have been impacted by traumatic events. It also includes a social worker available at Philips Recreation Center in the city’s Carrick neighborhood for youth who want to drop in and receive help.
Across all of its programs, OCHS has had about 3,100 service encounters, Alarcon said.
The office also has distributed more than 1,000 doses of Narcan, 500 fentanyl test strips and 820 gun safety locks so far this year, she said.
“We really want to bridge the gap between community and government, especially communities that have been distrustful of government in the past,” she said.
Alarcon said the office also is working to leverage partnerships with Allegheny County, neighboring municipalities and various other partners throughout the city to tackle major problems the city faces. She acknowledged the office is particularly looking to partner with other entities that can help provide housing and resources for the city’s homeless population.
The office’s Reaching Out On The Streets, or ROOTS, initiative offers a variety of services to homeless people throughout the city, ranging from help connecting with health care to harm reduction services.
“It’s really a holistic approach to providing the right care for this population,” she said, adding that the office aims to provide support “that is non-judgmental and not stigmatizing to the community.”
About 200 homeless people throughout the city are currently without shelter, Public Safety Director Lee Schmidt said.
Many of them, he said, are on a waiting list for some type of housing. It can take months to be moved into some type of shelter or housing after being placed on a waiting list, Schmidt said.
Alarcon said it’s a complex process to get homeless people into safe housing options that they’re willing to accept. Some shelters, she said, kick people out because of mental or behavioral health problems, and others won’t accept people using drugs.
Officials also want to ensure housing options are available where people already are, she said, particularly if people are receiving other services in that area.
City officials are working with the county and other partners to provide additional emergency shelters and temporary housing. The goal, he said, is to ensure housing is low-barrier, safe and available 24 hours a day.
Council President Theresa Kail-Smith, D-West End, said that if the city wants to tackle homelessness through OCHS, officials need to ensure there are places to take people to get them off the streets. She pointed out that officials have heard complaints from business owners who have homeless people causing issues near their businesses, particularly in Downtown.
“I have concerns for our businesses Downtown, too,” Councilman Anthony Coghill, D-Beechview, said. “But really the concern is for the unhoused with winter looming.”
The office is hiring people to staff a new Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, initiative. It will work with people who are engaged in small nonviolent crimes, like retail theft, simple drug possession and disorderly conduct, Alarcon said.
The office also recently accepted a $1 million grant for a Post Overdose Support Team, which will offer added support to people who have overdosed.