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Behavioral Health Community Action Team works to reduce number of mentally ill going to SLO County Jail

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Posted at 10:28 PM, Dec 10, 2019

The Behavioral Health Community Action Team says they're making progress in reducing the number of mentally ill people returning to jail.

The team is part of an initiative that pairs San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office Community Action Team Deputies with staff from the county's Behavioral Health Department to get people more easily connected with services.

Homelessness and having a mental illness aren't crimes, but things like trespassing or causing public scenes are.

Staff from the county's Behavioral Health Department have been riding along with the sheriff's office Community Action Team for nearly a year to help the homeless with mental illness or substance abuse issues from ending up in jail.

"We have some great services in our county and there's been some people falling through the cracks because maybe outreach workers haven't felt safe going out to some of these communities," said Deputy Toby DePew of the SLO County Sheriff's Office.

Together this team takes county services directly to those in need, often transporting people to locations to receive help with everything from getting an ID, receiving substance abuse treatment or finding a place to stay.

Deputies say they spend hours every day making connections with the homeless to start gaining their trust.

"Sometimes to have that security of there's a law enforcement officer going with you to give that confidence or to even walk through that door might not only give them the confidence but also us helping them might get them to where they need to get quicker too," DePew said.

Since the program began this February, the Behavioral Health Department says they've made contact with more than 300 people, which includes some who are already in jail and are looking to get clean.

However, not everyone they meet is looking for help.

The sheriff's office says there are often people they encounter that prefer to stay homeless.

Some we spoke to say while they're declining services, they appreciate the compassion from deputies they don't typically receive elsewhere.

"[Other people] don't realize we're people too. I mean, I worry about global warming and all that stuff too - same as everyone else does. It's just an unfortunate situation that's not easy to get out of," said Tom Bristow, a homeless person living in Oceano.

For those who do take the help and turn their lives around, it means the world to this team.

"Yes, it's a 40 hour a week job but it's beyond that in many ways because we're worried about the people we're helping when they're not sheltered or they're not in services yet. We're almost as invested in their success as they are," said psychiatric technician Brooke Jordan.

This co-response team was made possible by a federal grant, which is expected to help cover the costs for five years.

The SLO County Sheriff's Office Community Action team will be hosting crisis intervention training the first week in February to train others in the community on how to interact with those who are mentally ill or have substance abuse issues.