Building better crisis response systems

As our community grapples with creating better and more responsive emergency systems (what many refer to as “defunding the police”) we at DESC want to share what we’ve learned during decades of experience working with marginalized people and doing crisis response.

To be clear, institutionalized racism is a problem that we are committed to addressing. This post discusses housing and crisis response systems because that’s where our experience is most relevant.

Lesson 1: When people have safe housing they experience less crisis and place fewer 911 calls. DESC’s work in the Housing First movement has demonstrated that people are much less apt to go into crisis and need 911 intervention when the chaos of homelessness is eliminated from their lives. Published research has documented better health and far less crisis for people served.

A version of this dynamic has been illustrated dramatically in the past few months as we moved guests of our crowded downtown shelter into their own rooms at the Red Lion Hotel in Renton. While hotel rooms are not the same as true permanent housing, they’re far closer to that experience than congregate shelters or living on the streets. In 2019 the shelter averaged 5.2 calls to 911 every day. The same group of people, now at the Red Lion, are averaging 1.3 calls per day – a 75% drop.

As our Shelter Operations Manager Dan Williams noted, this change was created by offering people safety and privacy. What people need is “to be treated with dignity. That is it. And congregate homeless shelters do not do that.”

Lesson 2: When people are in crisis, specialists trained in behavioral health and conflict de-escalation should be the first responders. DESC is already a part of King County’s crisis response system. Fire fighters, police and EMTs call on our Mobile Crisis Teams for support and resolution when people are having behavioral health crises. This type of collaboration helps match the needs of people in crisis with interventions that will be most useful to them. And it frees up other emergency law enforcement and health resources to focus on acute health and safety issues.

This system of behavioral health crisis response remains small relative to the level of need in our community. This means that the personnel available in the greatest numbers is still law enforcement. There are thousands of uniformed police officers in King County. In comparison, DESC’s Mobile Crisis Team has 38 mental-health professionals to cover the same area. What could we accomplish by bringing this number up to the scale of the need and allowing people to call on these teams directly instead of having all calls go through 911? How many people in crisis are currently ignored because witnesses don’t know what to do or are reluctant to summon a potentially dangerous police response?

The common thread in both lessons is that our society has already chosen to disinvest from basic needs. Instead of providing access to safe housing and affordable health care, we call police to intervene when this lack of care inevitably leads to crisis. At DESC, we believe that our community can and must do better. We will continue our work to build systems that work for all of our neighbors.