The city of Berkeley is holding a community event Thursday evening on Zoom to answer questions about the Specialized Care Unit, a new 24/7 crisis response team set to launch in the coming months.
The 2-year, $4.5 million pilot program, called the SCU for short, is designed to provide a non-police response for people in crisis due to mental health and substance use issues.
In December, the city chose Bonita House to run the pilot. After a multi-year planning process, organizers are now firming up how the SCU will work.
As part of its outreach efforts, the city's Department of Health, Housing & Community Services has planned a series of community events in the coming months.
The first comes Thursday, Feb. 9, from 6-7:30 p.m.
Thursday night, the city will describe the program's background, share next steps and hold a Q&A session.
Lisa Warhuus, who runs the housing and community services department, said the SCU will offer a functional crisis response to Berkeley that's designed to get people the level of care they deserve.
The city has a long-running Mobile Crisis Team but its hours are limited and its outreach workers are part of a co-response with police officers.
The combined mental health-police response team was reportedly the first of its kind in the nation when it was created decades ago.
In contrast, the SCU has been designed as a non-police response following an outpouring of interest around the nation, after the murder of George Floyd, in developing alternatives to law enforcement.
Councilman Ben Bartlett came up with the concept of the SCU after being inspired by a Berkeley Fire Department pilot program during COVID-19 to get more direct services to people in need on the street.
"Berkeley’s commitment to equitable public safety means something," Bartlett said Thursday. "People still care, and we are taking action."
Of all of Berkeley's big ideas to come out of the effort to reimagine policing in recent years and rethink what public safety means, the SCU has generated the most support and is slated to be the first program to launch.
Questions still remain, however, about how the pilot program will work as far as what calls for service will warrant a non-police response, what constitutes success and how the safety of the new outreach workers will be ensured.
The upcoming community sessions are designed to help answer those questions and more.
"So many people want to know what the heck is going on," Warhuus told The Berkeley Scanner recently. "We also want to get ideas on how to move forward."
The city knows there will likely be some bumps in the road, she added. The SCU will be an entirely new system, which can always pose a challenge.
The SCU was designed to be on equal footing with Berkeley police and firefighters, Warhuus said. It is not a secondary response.
The SCU teams will operate out of their own van and have their own phone number for community members to use to request help.
The idea is to roll out the Specialized Care Unit pilot program in Berkeley as the pieces come together and then work to refine the program over time.
"We’re going to launch with what we’ve got when we got it," Warhuus said. "Once we have some kind of critical mass, including staff hired and trained, we’ll be encouraging them to do outreach in the community. We want them to become a known entity."