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A new mental health crisis pilot program is starting in Half Moon Bay to help people experiencing mental health issues, providing an alternative response to law enforcement and other first responders.

“In situations involving a mental health crisis, the Crisis Assistance Response and Education Services program, which begins March 16, will offer an increased focus on nonviolent crisis intervention, mental health care, and assistance for the long-term success of the individuals involved — instead of an immediate armed response which may be the wrong approach for individuals in crisis and could have tragic results,” Half Moon Bay Mayor Debbie Ruddock said in a statement from the city.

The unarmed CARES team will respond to 911 mental health crisis calls in a van. The team features a certified emergency medical technician and an experienced behavioral health care clinician. The team will be bilingual and trained in culturally competent de-escalation, crisis intervention, motivational interviewing and suicide prevention tools, according to the city. It will follow up with clinical interventions, directing people to service providers and supporting people and their families through the mental health system. CARES personnel would only go when there is no threat of violence, with Sheriff’s Office deputies on hand if needed. The team would respond to calls for suicide ideas, drug and alcohol influence, a mental health crisis, emotional distress and parents concerned about their child’s behavior.

“To access these services, these individuals will need to contact 911, and the dispatchers at public safety communications will assess the situation to determine if it is an appropriate call for the CARES team to respond to,” Assistant City Manager Matthew Chidester said.

The city is partnering with San Mateo County and El Centro de Libertad, a nonprofit organization in San Mateo County that provides services to those facing addiction and mental health issues. El Centro de Libertad serves about 1,500 people with a staff of around 25. The city prioritized the program after renewed calls from the public and the council for different ways of dealing with public safety. The council directed staff in 2021 to create the program and increase community outreach and coalition building. The council drew inspiration from the renowned Eugene CAHOOTS program, which is a mobile crisis response team that answers calls diverted from emergency services dispatchers around issues of mental health crisis, substance abuse and housing. Half Moon Bay’s pilot program will run from March 16 through Oct. 15. It will be within city limits but include Moonridge Housing outside the city limits.

Don Horsley, president of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, helped ensure county funding of around $75,000 to cover half the costs, while the city will cover the remaining half. The city hopes to pursue state funding or grant programs for a permanent program. City staff is looking at Assembly bills 988 and 118 as potential program funders starting in 2023. Horsley said the county is trying to increase mental health crisis services and improve access to care for those in need.

“Because we have so many more mental health issues today, we have to try and do something different,” Horsley said.

Horsley said the pandemic had exacerbated mental health issues with many different areas of support shut down.

“We have seen an increased number of people facing a mental health crisis,” Horsley said. “It’s a way to try and de-escalate these things, so the person gets the care and treatment they need, and we don’t end up with someone in jail.”

The city will host a public event ceremony to celebrate the program on March 16 at the El Centro De Libertad office at 225 Cabrillo Highway Suite 114B in Half Moon Bay from noon to 2 pm

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