DULUTH — The city has had a Crisis Response Team for a while now, but only in the past year has it been able to really step up services, with the help of $600,000 in municipal funding, on top of support it also receives from the Arrowhead Behavioral Health Institute.
The beefed up Mobile Community Crisis Response Team recently marked its first year of delivering services to people experiencing life challenges, such as substance abuse, homelessness and often-underlying mental health issues.
Duluth Fire Chief Shawn Krizaj described the crisis response team as “an alternative to a 911 response for things that are not criminal in nature or a public safety hazard.”
Krizaj has worked closely with Cortney Buchholz, a coordinator for the Human Development Center, which oversees the program, and Duluth Police Lt. David Drozdowski since December 2021 to launch the revamped local crisis response team.
“We had a little bit of a slow start, due to some of the hiring complications we faced, just like any other organization looking for people in a tight job market,” Krizaj said. But as the team has staffed up, providing more robust round-the-clock service, he believes its impact has clearly grown.
For about the first half of the year, Bucholz said the crisis response team operated with a skeleton staff of about three core people, but the crew has now grown to 10, and she is working to bring that number up to an even dozen.
Often, the team swings into action in response to 988 calls for help. Initial 988 calls in the area are typically routed to a regional dispatch center in Grand Rapids before they are redirected to local responders.
Buchholz stressed her team is truly mobile. “We have gone to Burger King, Motel 6, Starbucks and Holiday stations. We’ve done assessments outside of CHUM, in assisted living and nursing homes, grade schools, high schools, middle schools and colleges. We’ve gone all over the place.”
“If a person doesn’t have a home or a place to go and just really needs to talk or get some help, we will put them in a car and go for a drive with them,” she said.
The Crisis Response Team helps people find the resources they need to access help and expedite services. Buchholz said it’s not uncommon to face a several-week wait to get into a therapist, but her team typically can get someone in to see a crisis therapist within 24 hours. Getting an appointment to see a psychiatrist can take even longer, often as much as six months, but she said Crisis Response Team members typically can shorten that wait to between 24 and 72 hours.
Buchholz said team members are stationed at the library to provide assistance; they travel the skywalk system and the downtown looking for people in need of help; and they show up at Duluth’s winter warming center, where people experiencing homelessness gather in cold weather.
With the help of $600,000 in city funding, the Crisis Response Team has gained greater flexibility.
Previously, responders had been able to conduct mental health welfare checks only when they were requested directly by the recipient, under the terms of service stipulated by the team’s funding source.
“With this, it’s been amazing, because we’ve had practitioners call us,” Buchholz said. “We’ve had dads call us. We’ve had people from California and all over call and say, ‘Look I’m really worried about this person.’ And instead of directing them to call 911, we’re able to go and help out. That, to me, is one of the most exciting things.”
While Drozdowski said he’s confident the Crisis Response Team has lessened the burden placed on patrol officers, he acknowledged that’s hard to quantify.
“I wish I had better numbers to support it,” he said. But especially as the response team staff has grown, Drozdowski sees mounting evidence of the difference it’s making.
“I can’t say it’s made a night-and-day difference,” Drozdowski said, but it certainly has reduced the volume of calls requiring a police response.
“It’s a good thing for us, because we know someone is still there to help, and it gives us more time to concentrate on the calls that have a law enforcement component to them,” he said.
Particularly with calls involving mental health crises, Drozdowski said: “Sometimes it’s better for cops to not be at those, because sometimes it can agitate people and escalate a situation. Not always. But it also frees us up to do other things, and it kind of puts those calls in the hands of the experts, per se.”
Early indications point to the Crisis Response Team delivering the intended benefits, said 1st District Duluth City Councilor Gary Anderson, who was a strong proponent of funding a new emergency response alternative.
“This is exactly the wish from the community and the desire that we worked on in creating this, that there is this option of someone who does not have a weapon and who is not necessarily in uniform to show up and help somebody in need. It’s really about community wellness and community safety,” Anderson said.
“It’s not that police officers or firefighters aren’t there to help, too, because they are. But this is another way to respond,” he said.
To help get word out regarding the program, Buchholz plans to host a Community Crisis Q&A session from 5-7 pm Jan. 18 at Ecolibrium3, 2014 W. Third St.
Anderson praised the outreach event.
“I am grateful for Cortney’s leadership at HDC and doing this Q&A session next week, I think is going to be helpful in continuing to build awareness of what’s available, what we are doing in Duluth and how this is contributing to our overall wellness and safety ,” he said.
Buchholz said helping people in crisis has its challenges, but described her work pulling together a team of responders since last December as “the best year of my life.”
“To give someone a little light at their darkest hour can be life-changing,” she said. “I feel uplifted and energized.