Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Underneath a St. Francis Drive overpass, a group of people were making their home in an arroyo. Their tents huddled near the back wall of the overpass, sheltered by nearby bushes and cardboard stacked against concrete pillars.
The people were living in the arroyo for about a month before being asked to leave because police suspected them of vandalism in the vicinity. But, instead of being shuffled from place to place, the city’s Alternative Response Unit offered help.
The unit is a partnership between the Santa Fe Police Department and the Santa Fe Fire Department. It screens dispatch calls to see where it can provide services that extend beyond a typical police response. The unit, which comprises a caseworker, a paramedic and a police officer, and aims to help people in a variety of issues stemming from mental health to homelessness, went live in May.
“It’s really sort of what this big evolution of health care is looking toward – how to get out of the brick-and-mortar institutions, and take care to where people are,” said Andres Mercado, mobile integrated health officer with the Santa Fe Fire Department.
The purpose of the unit is to help handle the calls that straddle the intersection between public health and public safety, Mercado said. Currently, the unit runs three days a week, with plans to move up to four days a week.
In addition, due to the unit’s success, the departments are interviewing candidates for a second unit.
The unit costs about $400,000 to run and the whole program costs about $2 million, just on the fire department’s side, according to Assistant Fire Chief Brian Moya. The program also includes caseworkers in the office who do not go out with the unit.
Despite the program’s cost, it still saves the city money. Mayor Alan Webber said about two years ago that the city was spending $3.4 million a year chasing encampments across the city. Now, the unit can help get to the root of issues to help prevent homelessness from occurring in the first place.
“This is really a more systematic approach to getting different outcomes,” Webber said. “And so, dollar for dollar, you’re getting a very different approach and a different series of results.”
In 2015, Mercado said, about 18% of the fire department’s calls for service included the same 250 people. These people often needed help with their mental health, health care and finding a place to live. Of Santa Fe’s 80,000 residents, these calls comprised less than 1% of the city’s population.
Back under the overpass, Emergency Medical Services Capt. William Brunson asked the individuals if they needed help finding a new place to live. One of the men said he had been homeless for over three years, and came to Santa Fe from New York.
In his tent, his three dogs barked at the paramedics as they made their way through the encampment, checking on people and offering their services. A sharps container sat on the ground next to the man’s tent and Brunson offered to get him a new one, but the man declined.
Brunson spoke with him some more and handed him a card with a caseworker’s contact information to help get him housed.
For Brunson and Mobile Integrated Health paramedic Ramos Tsosie, this was a typical day at work. The two worked together to help the people under the overpass gain access to community services so they wouldn’t be left without a place to go after being told to leave.
Most of the homeless people Brunson and Tsosie help are people they’ve met before. This knowledge, and relationships the paramedics build with people, helps them on the job. Knowing a person’s situation and backstory helps the two fully address their needs.
But they don’t just help the city’s homeless people. The two said they’ve also de-escalated fights in hotel rooms and people’s houses, as well as gone on welfare checks. In a recent call, the two helped a woman who was lying on the floor of her home, unresponsive from a stroke.
It’s their response, which can save someone’s life or give someone a place to live, that is helping the city get to the root of problems instead of treating symptoms, Mercado and Webber said. Whether it’s walking into a hotel room, parking lot or arroyo, Brunson and Tsosie provide an alternative way to make a difference in the city different.