As the rates of homelessness continue to swell in Santa Monica, City Council is reconsidering the Fire Department’s proposal to address this issue with a Community Response Unit.

A Community Response Unit rethinks the way emergency services respond to homeless related incidents, by using 9-1-1 calls as an opportunity to connect unhoused individuals to solutions and resources.

Currently around 20 percent of Santa Monica Fire Department’s calls involve homeless individuals, and often firefighters’ only option is to transport the individual to an emergency room and rush back to the fire station to be ready for their next call.

A Community Response Unit would assign dedicated firefighter EMTs to 9-1-1 calls with homeless individuals. CRU staff would assess the individual’s health and remain on scene as long as needed to build trust and connect them to resources—be it medical support, mental health support, substance abuse counseling, housing options, or transportation home.

“When we receive a 9-1-1 call for homeless individuals, these are people who have fallen through the infrastructure safety net of state, county or city services,” said Santa Monica Firefighters Union President Dom Bei. “The CRU effectively connects these people to the resources they really need, while maintaining life saving emergency capabilities for critical incidents.”

SMFD successfully piloted a small scale version of this program from January 2019 to April 2019, but the City turned down SMFD’s proposal to fund a permanent program later that year.

Since then the number of homeless people on Santa Monica’s streets has only grown.

Fire Chief Bill Walker said a CRU could significantly impact the number of homeless people in need of assistance and result in long-term savings for the City. Currently chronically homeless 9-1-1 callers generate a significant cost to the community between Fire Department resources, ambulance transportation, and emergency room visits.

An SMFD analysis found that between Aug 2016 and June 2018, 9-1-1 requests from three of their most frequent homeless callers cost $558,032 — $58,000 more than the $500,000 SMFD is currently requesting to launch a permanent CRU.

This $500,000 would fund a ‘bare bones’ program and employ two firefighter EMTs to staff a CRU for 40 hours a week. This is significantly pared down from the SMFD’s 2019 proposal for a $1.8 million program with six dedicated staff members and a data analyst intern.

The City is still in the throes of Covid-19 economic recovery and hesitant about funding new programs. However, SMFD maintains that this program would save money in the long-term as it is eligible for partial reimbursement from government agencies and would decrease the number of homeless individuals calling 9-1-1.

So far Councilmembers Kristin McCowan, Phil Brock, and Christine Parra have voiced support for funding a CRU, with Parra using her background as an Emergency Services Coordinator to explain the value of the unit.

“Recent changes to state law such as AB 1544 allows for the creation of EMS programs to transport patients to alternate destinations such as a mental health facility or sobering center. There are revenue opportunities for the city in utilizing the CRU for transports such as these and seeking reimbursement from agencies such as MediCare,” said Parra. “Eventually the unit may be able to pay for itself and more.”

Several nearby cities run similar programs through their fire departments, such as Long Beach’s Homelessness Education and Response Team, Anaheim’s Community Care Response Unit, and San Diego’s Resource Access Program.

A CRU would have several applications beyond connecting homeless individuals to resources, such as helping elderly individuals who experience frequent falls, and supporting future vaccination efforts with mobile units.