Travis Atchison lights a Marlboro Red as he drives through South St. Petersburg. He’s hurrying toward a man who says he’s hearing violent voices in his head.
They’re telling the man to hurt people, and he thinks that if he listens to the voices, maybe they’ll leave him alone. He called the city’s emergency line from a community center full of children and families to ask for help.
Atchison’s partner, Addison Lackey, sits shotgun and updates him on the man’s mental health status and background based on what the emergency dispatcher pulled up after the call.
"It looks like he ran from police in the past," Lackey says.
“Well, we’re not cops,” says Atchison before taking another drag of his cigarette.
They’re part of St. Petersburg’s Community Assistance and Life Liaison (CALL) program, which responds to crisis situations without police.
Light rain falls across Atchison’s windshield on this gray Saturday afternoon as soul music quietly sings from the speakers of his 2012 Toyota Camry with a busted front bumper. They’re closing in on the man in crisis, just a couple of miles away now.
Atchison and Lackey are both armed with nothing but their expertise in communication, de-escalation, and mental health. When cops show up to crisis situations, those in vulnerable positions often have adverse reactions, and because cops are carrying guns, situations can turn violent. Since 2015, nearly a quarter of people killed by police have had a known mental illness.
Critics of over-policing have called for mental health counselors to respond to certain situations instead of cops, which led to successful non-armed crisis responder programs like Cahoots in Oregon (stylized “CAHOOTS”). The success of such operations led Gulf Coast Community Jewish Family and Community Services (JFCS) to team up with the City of St. Petersburg to create the CALL program, a move in part made possible when the city decided not to hire 25 new police officers and instead invest in the CALL program.
Atchison is working toward his Ph.D. in Psychology with a specialization in addictions, and Lackey has a Bachelor’s in Communication Studies with a specialization in interpersonal communications. Prior to this job, Lackey worked at Little Caesars and has thrived in her new profession.
Both joined toward the beginning of the program’s launch in February. They’ve now entered “phase three” of their pilot program. Phase one and two involved a training period and riding along with police to calls. Phase three means that they ride without the police to an array of situations in which crime or violence has not yet occurred.
Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, along with the City of Tampa, all have mental health professionals that ride along with police, but the CALL program is the only one that rides without.
CALL workers know that most people who are in crisis just want someone to listen to their problems and to offer help. They know that those in crisis are often isolated, desperate and in need of a chance at redemption. They know that with their skillset, they have the best shot at giving that to the people they serve. As Atchison, Program Director for CALL, puts it, “We have our set of tools, and the police have theirs.”
The man hearing voices has his head down at a desk inside the community center. It’s crowded, so they invite him into a separate room to chat. He’s been living outside; his only family is up north. He's on the edge of sanity and wishes the voices would stop. He's overwhelmed and it's not just violence that speaks to him. Suicide is also on his mind.
They use a technique called a “motivational interview,” and validate his feelings to talk him through it. They tell him they understand and ask him what kind of help he thinks he needs. Eventually, he says that he wants to self-admit to a mental health institution so he can get back on meds.
His face lights up when Atchison and Lackey say they'll drive him to the hospital if that’s what he wants. In the car, his mood lifts. They tell him about the CALL program, and how it's a project of the JFCS.
"I love Jewish people!" he shouts in glee. "They always make the best food."
Now that he's opened up, Lackey uses her soothing communication skills to ask him more about his family, and if he'd want to try to get in contact. He says yes, maybe once he's out of the hospital. She takes his number so she can follow up with him. If his sister confirms he has a place to stay, Lackey can buy him a bus ticket to go to her, and will also try to link him with long-term therapy.
All of this is part of Lackey’s role as a “navigator” for CALL. On a daily basis, she’ll head out to calls, communicate with multiple people in distress, and follow up with long-term clients who are working with CALL to overcome their issues.
Before they part ways, they give the man a pamphlet with their 24-hour hotline that he can reach out to. He checks into a hospital that will transfer him to a mental health facility—and yet again, CALL has helped someone in crisis get the help they want and need.
A heavy job
Back at the office, which sits in the Disston Plaza strip mall, nestled between a liquor store and jewelry shop, the CALL workers debrief about their recent encounters.
Inside the office building that’s just large enough to hold a handful of desks, a microwave, and a large grey cubicle, there’s time to vent, to lean on each other for support. A couple of them just got back from a call with a person who was on the verge of suicide. Mental health, addiction, and poverty situations are their most common calls. The effect of seeing this day after day can weigh heavy on the responders.
Atchison says that sometimes they feel like “emotional punching bags,” which incites a round of laughter from the crew. It’s important that they take care of themselves, because they can’t properly care for others unless they do. Counseling and therapy are offered by the program, along with yoga and exercise. Family and friends truly help some of them. They also try their best to leave the job at the door. But that doesn’t always work.
Paula Arce is a mental health professional and a clinical supervisor for CALL. She says that after some shifts, she goes home, looks up at the sky, and says, “Why, God?”
Some of their family and friends call them crazy for doing the job unarmed, but these scenarios are not always new for them. Many members of the 10-person team have dealt with similar issues in their families or within themselves. As Tianna Audet, another clinical supervisor for CALL says, “It’s part of the reason we come to the job, we’re not totally different from anyone out there, we’re not immune to these issues,” she says. “People appreciate being treated like an equal.”
CALL staffers were hired based on social work, mental health and communications backgrounds. Some even experienced the situations they now help others deal with.
Wade Sabatine, a CALL navigator, spent years addicted and homeless before deciding to get sober, he says. He then got his master’s degree and became involved in social work prior to CALL. He and his faithful labrador Ender often interact with the homeless population in St. Pete. They offer gift cards to Publix, pregnancy tests, money for gas, motels, connections to rehab facilities, and places to stay for people. Sabatine and the rest of the crew have forged strong bonds with the marginalized community of the poor in St. Pete.
Helping thousands across the city
The responders do get into situations that are frightening in the field, but fortunately, of the 2,665 clients they’ve responded to as of July 19, there have been no violent incidents, and they’re not called out to situations where violence or weapons have been confirmed. They’ve helped more than 1,000 people with mental health issues, about 300 who specifically had ideations of suicide, and have deescalated hundreds of “disorderly juvenile” situations, sometimes at schools, and neighborhood disputes.
The St. Pete Police department has been extremely helpful and cooperative, CALL workers say, and officers have sent around 900 cases to the program that they thought would be better suited for their expertise.
“The benefit to residents is that when they call 911 for a non-violent, noncriminal issue, they receive a trained expert to handle mental health crisis, homelessness and quality of life issues,” Yolanda Fernandez, Manager of the Community Awareness Division for St. Petersburg Police wrote in an email to CL. “Not only do they receive immediate help, but they also receive follow-up resources.”
Fernandez says that it’s still too early to tell exactly how much time and money the CALL program has saved the city, but they aim to have a better idea of those numbers after a full year of the program. The hope is that CALL will also free-up police officers to focus on serious crimes and violence.
Most of the CALL employees pull second jobs because the median pay for the job is $40,000 a year. In September, the pilot program ends and they’re hoping that their efforts will show that the program should be renewed, along with a revisiting of compensation and funding. Ultimately, JFCS and the City of St. Pete will decide if the program should continue.
Terri Balliet, Chief Operating Officer of JFCS, says she’s been impressed with CALL’s effectiveness and is confident that there will be a new round of funding when the pilot ends.
An everyday effort
So many people and their families have expressed gratitude for what CALL provides. The de-escalation, along with the connection to community-based resources and long-term care to maintain stability have made a huge impact on those they encounter, but Atchison says they need more people reaching out to them.
Many people of color and those with mental health issues in St. Petersburg still hesitate to call emergency lines during crisis situations, out of fear of armed officers and incarceration. Even a police presence at someone’s house can make them feel embarrassed in front of their neighborhood.
But the CALL responders want people to know that they are there for those in emergencies of any background or mental state.
Their goal is to help bring people on a path to healing.
“The need is everywhere,” Atchison says. “And if we can’t help someone today, we’ll try again tomorrow.”
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