Pasadena’s Public Health and Fire Departments Team Up To Address City’s Homelessness

Pasadena’s Public Health and Fire departments team up to address substance abuse and mental health problems among the city’s homeless population.

Responding to repeated 911 calls made by individuals with mental health and substance abuse issues has become a troubling pattern for Pasadena’s firefighters and police officers.

It is sometimes the case that the modus operandi of these 911 callers is to cycle in and out of emergency rooms, only to find themselves again in desperate need of first responders’ attention. Some have become well known for their incessant behavior and circular pattern that inevitably follows.

Their diagnosis spans the spectrum of substance abuse, most notably methamphetamines and alcohol. Schizophrenia is a common mental illness, while many have experienced trauma or violence in their lives.

Frustration with this pervasive problem catalyzed the conversation between Pasadena’s Social and Mental Health Services division and the city’s fire department about how to address that portion of the city’s homeless population who are in need of mental health and substance abuse services and ongoing support.

With the help of a five-year, $1.9 million Grant for the Benefit of Homeless Individuals issued by the federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Pasadena Public Health Department is addressing the city’s homeless population through what’s become known as the Pasadena Outreach Response Team (PORT).

PORT is comprised of social workers, a liaison from the city’s fire department, and representatives of Union Station Homeless Services. “We’re trying to create a more ‘homeless-friendly’ delivery of services,” says Angelica Palmers, division manager of Pasadena Social and Mental Health Services.

According to the 2018 Homeless Count & Subpopulation Survey conducted by the City of Pasadena’s Housing Department, the Pasadena Partnership to End Homelessness, and the nonprofit Urban Initiatives, the population of sheltered and unsheltered homeless individuals living in the city on a given night reached 677, up 18 percent from a year earlier, when 575 homeless individuals were counted.

The 2018 survey found that of those 677 homeless individuals, 19 percent reported mental health problems, 13 percent reported developmental disabilities, and 13 percent reported substance-use disorders.

A primary goal for PORT, according to Palmers, is sustainability beyond the five years of the federal grant. That includes assisting homeless individuals with finding temporary to permanent housing, and following up with medical-care appointments and substance-use treatments.

“Together, we’ll make the appointments and we will pick them up and take them to their appointment,” says firefighter Tony Zee, liaison between PORT and the fire department.

Another goal is to significantly decrease the number of 911 calls from the homeless population. “We’re trying to lessen the burden on the city,” Palmers says, “but also trying to help [people] rebuild their lives.”

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