A group of people wait in a short line inside of New Haven City Hall. The lights are on. Private voting stations, which look like large privacy folders, are seen in the distance.
People wait in line to cast their votes at New Haven City Hall. Jaden Edison

When someone camping out on Ella T. Grasso Boulevard called 911 last month to report their makeshift shelter had caught fire, they weren’t just connected with the fire department — but also to social workers stocked with blankets, pillows, clothes, comforters and a new tent.

Those social workers are part of a piloted crisis response team called COMPASS (Compassionate Allies Serving Our Streets) that has responded 249 times to New Haveners dealing with homelessness, mental health issues and substance abuse challenges since the group’s launch three months back. As of earlier this week, that number has now risen to 275.

On Friday morning, community leaders and COMPASS representatives gathered at City Hall to tout the success of that new program and discuss its future post-pilot phase.

“The evidence, both in numbers and in many ways more importantly in the stories, shows that COMPASS is already a huge success and we’re excited to build on this program,” Mayor Justin Elicker stated.

Though only set in motion in November, the motivation behind COMPASS was grounded in the 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which set off a series of protests and conversations within New Haven about how to reimagine policing. The mayor proposed COMPASS as a means of redirecting certain crisis calls away from cops and towards professionals who may be better equipped to help.

[RELATED: New Haven uses COMPASS for dozens of mental health calls in program’s first weeks]

In practice, the police and fire departments still respond directly to all emergencies. Once at the scene, they then decide whether or not to call in COMPASS to further address the matter. Elicker said that down the line, the city hopes to see 911 call center operators immediately dispatch COMPASS based on their own evaluation without necessarily sending police and fire first.

The COMPASS team is made up of six social work clinicians and four peer recovery support specialists in addition to a part-time medical director. A clinician and peer counselor typically work together on each case to provide crisis intervention and counseling, harm reduction support, information and referral, transportation, and social services assistance.

The mayor said on Friday that, between Nov. 1 and Jan. 31, which were the first three months of the program, COMPASS responded to 249 calls. Thirty-seven percent of those calls were referrals from 911 dial-ins, 65 percent of which were requests from the police department and the remaining 35 percent of which came from the fire department.

“The police need help and this is help,” Police Chief Karl Jacobson said of COMPASS. ​“I’ve called for COMPASS myself. It’s a breath of fresh air to have the backing if we can call someone else who has better skills than us for other things. In all my 25 years of policing I never had that.”

Elicker remembered some examples of times when COMPASS had intervened in 911 calls, aiding in situations that could have seen “escalated violence,” as he put it. When responding to instances of domestic dispute, Elicker said, COMPASS has succeeded in securing permanent housing for a mother and her child; found emergency shelter in a safehouse to provide protection in another instance of threatened violence; and moved at least one other individual into psychiatric hospitalization, ultimately collaborating on a discharge plan that saw the individual enrolled in transitional housing with nursing and mental health treatments.

Still, 63 percent of engagement by COMPASS is described as ​“self-deployed.”

In other words, the majority of COMPASS’ work thus far has actually been proactive outreach to residents and follow-ups with individuals rather than direct responses to 911 crisis call-ins. 

“Self-deployment,” according to members of the COMPASS team, involves patrolling areas that see high levels of individuals without housing or struggling with substance abuse in order to connect those in need with social services or whatever assistance they may require in a given moment. 

John Labieniec, one of the directors of COMPASS and the vice president of acute and forensic services at the nonprofit Continuum of Care, said that COMPASS workers do everything from getting individuals onto waitlists for housing or shelter beds to helping them access grief counseling services or a warm meal to distributing needed resources like NARCAN kits. The workers can also just serve as ​“a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on,” he said.

“It’s no surprise that we have a shortage of beds and insufficient housing,” Labieniec said. The reality of ​“waitlist after waitlist after waitlist” to receive basic shelter is one reason why continued care and follow up with individuals is a key component of COMPASS’s work; it can take persistent advocacy and work to access basic resources as well as significant ​“time to build trust with individuals who’ve lost trust in the system,” he said.

A response to a fire at tent city on the Boulevard, for example, resulted in actual distribution of donated goods (which are collected at Continuum of Care, 109 Legion Ave.) to meet immediate needs. It could also see relationships built overtime between individuals who are often deeply skeptical of shelter life, opposed to government intervention, and/or struggling with substance disorders and city representatives able to connect with support services and independent housing help.

COMPASS Recovery Support Specialist Nanette Campbell said as much. ​“Sometimes we go out for outreach and it’s amazing that they remember us, they remember our names, they come to us,” she said of New Haveners she’s encountered consistently on the streets. ​“I remember an incident where a woman was in crisis but she remembered my face and she allowed me to get the help she needed. She was dead set against it, she wouldn’t go to a hospital or get any help, but she did when she saw me.”

Ta’LanneMonique Lawson-Dickerson, a community organizer who serves on the community advisory board that in-part oversees COMPASS’ work, said that beyond the statistics, ​“this is real and we’re making real change.”

“We’ve seen other states and other cities try this before and they failed. Not here, not in New Haven. We’re not gonna let this fail. This is here to stay, and this is just the beginning.”

Jack Tebes, another director of COMPASS and a professor of psychiatry at Yale, reported that COMPASS takes on average 13 minutes to respond to public-safety answering point calls and spends 45 minutes on scene. (Read the latest report on what COMPASS accomplished over the month of December of here.)

He said that each area of the city has received support from COMPASS, ​“from Fair Haven to Westville to East Rock to Newhallville, from the Hill to City Point.”

He said that the highest-volume of self-dispatches COMPASS calls, where COMPASS workers perform independent outreach work, is concentrated on the Green downtown, along Congress Avenue, and around Ella T. Grasso Boulevard, where dozens of individuals without housing camp out.

While COMPASS will remain in pilot phase until June, Carlos Sosa-Lombardo, the city’s director of community resilience, said that the city plans to expand the program come July. That will first of all mean extending the team’s hours from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week to 8 a.m. to midnight. As a longer-term goal, the city is considering making COMPASS a 24-hour service or creating multiple, overlapping teams to meet more demand during peak call hours.

Asked how the city is working to eliminate the intermediary issue of waitlists, city Community Services Administrator Mehul Dalal said the city must prioritize building deeply affordable housing.

He pointed to nearly $5 million in federal funding that could go towards constructing affordable housing units. Read more about that yet to be expended grant here, which has sparked debate about whether such funding should go towards a small slate of apartments or more humane infrastructure to support a growing population of individuals navigating life on the streets.

This story was first published Feb. 17, 2023 by New Haven Independent.