ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Homelessness, addiction, and mental health are issues that can fuel crime in Albuquerque. A relatively new unarmed department of behavioral health responders is tasked with taking on some of those calls, and taking some of the load off of police and fire crews. Is it working?

KRQE Investigative Reporter Gabrielle Burkhart takes viewers behind the scenes to show people how Albuquerque’s Community Safety Department is responding to those problems on the streets, and how much growing the department still has to do.

Just as the sun rises, homeless who spent the night in a tent city near I-40 in Albuquerque are greeted by fire trucks, an ambulance responding to a medical call, and police arriving at the camp. Farther east, Walter Adams and Jenny Carian are dispatched to their first call.

“There’s a lot of people right now that sometimes feel like nobody’s listening,” said Carian. These partners on patrol aren’t police. Adams and Carian are Behavioral Health Responders with Albuquerque Community Safety, or ACS, which is now a third option for 9-11 dispatchers and emergency response.

“We’re able to engage a little bit more, build a rapport, and kind of get them the help that they need,” explained Adams. “A lot of people are more willing to talk to us, and seem a little bit at ease when they see us,” said Carian.

Trained in de-escalation and crisis intervention, Adams and Carian start their morning on patrol throughout the city. Albuquerque Fire Rescue dispatched the pair to a dentist’s office near Louisiana and Menaul, where a female worker opening for the day found a man sleeping outside the business and called the city.

Adams and Carian respond to a homeless man sleeping outside dentist’s office in northeast Albuquerque.

“Good morning, Albuquerque Community Safety,” Carian announced. The man was just waking up. “Are you connected to any type of services or anything?” Adams asked the man. He told them he was not connected to services, and like a lot of people living on the streets, said he was not interested in going to a shelter.

But Adams and Carian didn’t stop there. The two pointed the man to resources, handing him a card listing shelters, pick-up times, and places to go if he needs warm clothes or a meal.

“Do you have your ID or any of your documents and stuff like that?” Carian asked him. They learned his wallet was stolen on a bus, then explained how he can get help. “I’m Jenny, nice to meet you,” she said during the end of their conversation.

Since ACS responders are not law enforcement, they can’t force the man to leave, which they explained to the woman who called it in.

“It breaks my heart to see him here,” the woman told Adams and Carian. “Like I said, just call back if you need us,” Adams told her.

ACS launched this initiative in September. Adams was among the first teams to start taking calls across the city. “It’s rewarding,” he said.

Homeless calls rising

Data from the first few months shows most of the calls ACS responds to are for “unsheltered individuals,” with the number of those calls growing from 375 to 727 from February to March.

ACS field responders also go out to welfare checks, people with drug or alcohol problems or in a mental crisis, and suicide calls. “There’s times we’ve transported the person to a local hospital, and there’s times where it didn’t rise to that level and that person just needed to talk,” Adams explained.

Talking and spending time with people to calm them down, get medical help, or point them to resources is extra time a strapped police and fire department doesn’t always have. “We’re meeting people at their time of crisis, which could be possibly the worse time of their lives,” said Adams.

“The goal really when we go out is sometimes just to build that rapport,” explained Mariela Ruiz-Angel, Director of the Albuquerque Community Safety Department. “Some days it’s great because you get that person who’s like, ‘I’m ready to get off the street, I’m ready to get sober. I want services, I want to be with my kids.’ And they will get in that car,” she added.

Other times, people aren’t interested in getting off the streets. “Are you out here by choice?” Adams asked a man sleeping outside a church. “Yeah,” the man responded. After a brief conversation, the man told Adams and Carian he wasn’t interested in getting help.

In it for the long haul

Adams said interactions like that don’t make him lose hope. “Systematically, we’re making a difference,” said Adams. “If we came across him tomorrow, we’d do the same thing.”

Ruiz-Angel knows drugs and mental illness play a big role, but says their strategy is repetition and rapport. And they’re in it for the long haul.

“Maybe you didn’t get to them that first time or that 10th time, but maybe the 25th time that you go and talk to them, you pick them on the day where they’ve hit rock bottom,” she said.

Homeless man tells Adams and Carian he’s not interested in connecting with resources

Unarmed behavioral health responders

Unlike police officers, ACS staff don’t carry weapons. “The most that they have is their jackets and their voices. “No mace. And neither do you know social workers have been doing this work for years,” she added.

But 95 % of the time, people on the streets do have a weapon. Ruiz-Angel said those weapons are mainly for self-defense.

“What we really gauge for – is the weapon a threat?” Ruiz-Angel explained. “Almost always, it’s never a threat. Now, if somebody is threatening to kill themselves or kill somebody else, that’s an indicator for us to probably bring in police.”

When asked how often police are called in to assist ACS, Ruiz-Angel responded, “I would say maybe like one in 20 calls, even less.”

Building a rapport with officers also takes time. She said police and fire crews are now requesting ACS responders at certain calls.

“I think we work very well with our counterparts,” Ruiz-Angel said. With 45 field responders, the department director hopes to bring 50 to 100 more onboard each year, and eventually assign area “beats” to teams of two.

“We absolutely need more responders,” said Ruiz-Angel.

Adams and Carian talking with a homeless couple who set up camp along I-40 frontage road

“Are you able to move your toes and everything like that?” Carian asked a homeless veteran who’d set up camp near I-40 in Albuquerque. At night, freezing temperatures make it hazardous to sleep outside.

Armed with water bottles, trash bags and blankets, Adams and Carian feel like they’re making a difference, even when they respond to a call and find no one there. “Hello, good morning anyone home?” Adams announces as they greet another homeless camp.

Oftentimes, the person is gone by the time teams arrive to the campsites. It happened a few times during KRQE’s ride-along with the pair. “We’re not police, we’re just coming to see if you’re OK,” Carian announced.

These are calls Adams claims would’ve taken police hours to get to, with chances of the same outcome. “It’s good to know that we’re able to assist and kind of free them so they can concentrate on like crime,” said Adams, referring to police officers.

Tracking the data

With homelessness on the rise and violent crime at an all-time high, are the city’s unarmed behavioral health responders making a difference? Ruiz-Angel says they’re tracking the data closely.

“Is ACS helping people get connected to our nonprofits? We do collect that kind of indicator,” explained Ruiz-Angel. “Are calls that normally police would go to – how are those being reverted and what are the outcomes of those calls?”

She hopes to see fewer use-of-force cases and more crisis intervention. “I don’t know if we’ll see a decrease in homelessness,” said Ruiz-Angel. “My hope is that we could see that.”

It’s a goal Adams and Carian are working toward. “It’s exciting to be part of something that could be you know, change,” said Adams.

ACS also responds to things like the shooting at West Mesa High School in February, where behavioral health experts helped calm parents during a chaotic scene, and handed out resource information. Ruiz-Angel said after that response, school staff asked ACS to continue working with them in the future.

Albuquerque’s mayor is asking the city council for an $8.1 million funding hike for ACS, which would double the department’s current budget.