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With firefighters and social workers, not cops, Seattle expands Health One to respond to homelessness, substance abuse, and mental health issues

(Image: City of Seattle)

After more than a year providing aid for homelessness, substance abuse, and mental health issues across downtown Seattle and Capitol Hill, Seattle Fire’s Health One is adding a second unit to expand its reach across new parts of the city.

Mayor Jenny Durkan and SFD Chief Harold Scoggins announced the expansion of the innovative program Tuesday.

“Seattle has pioneered community safety initiatives like Health One. As we continue to reimagine public safety, we will expand civilian public safety alternatives like Health One that sends a firefighter and social worker to a 9-1-1 call,” Durkan said.

CHS reported here on the November 2019 launch of SFD’s Health One and its specially trained Seattle Fire Department firefighters paired with a civilian social worker to help address the issues of homelessness and basic human health needs swamping Seattle’s emergency services.

“With a second Health One unit becoming operational, the program will add Ballard and the University District to its primary service area which also includes the downtown core and Capitol Hill neighborhood,” the city said in its announcement of the program’s expansion:

The units can deploy City-wide at the crews’ discretion, and will further reach clients in South Seattle and SODO neighborhoods with the first unit. The second unit will be located at Fire Station 2 in Belltown and operational from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. The program now allows for full weekday operations between the two units. Health One is dispatched through SFD’s Fire Alarm Center by calling 9-1-1 and cannot be contacted by members of the public directly.

Chief Scoggins said Tuesday that 56% of those served by Health One in 2020 reported they were experiencing homelessness.

“From a 26-year-old man looking for a shelter bed to a 92-year-old woman with mobility needs to a 44-year old man with an opioid use disorder, this program has proven to safely and effectively provide services to those who need it most, including our unhoused population,” Scoggins said.

The expansion comes amid ongoing debate over spending and the role of policing in Seattle as the city approaches what will likely be a protracted contract battle with the police union over a new contract.


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Annoyed
Annoyed
24 days ago

So who are you supposed to call now when you have an issue involving a homeless person that needs to be addressed ASAP? I had an issue where a camper set up in front of my house and presented a fire hazard situation due to some electrical thing they had running inside of their tent which they plugged into one of our outlets. I called the City of Seattle and was told they’d send a homelessness outreach rep out to re-home the person. 24 hours later, they hadn’t shown up. The person then abandoned their encampment and threw all of their belongings into the middle of the sidewalk so that it was unpassable. Since it was in front of my house, it became my situation to deal with. I called the City of Seattle again and they stated they’d send someone out within 10 days. That was totally unfeasible, and I wound up cleaning this myself, which I frankly felt was a health hazard for me, especially during the pandemic. I asked the person I spoke with who I should call if I needed an immediate response, and they said the cops. I thought we weren’t supposed to call the cops, and I’d honestly prefer not to out of concern for the person’s safety. Do you call 911 for these situations now? It’s frustrating that there’s no clear messaging from the defund the police camp about this if they want us to use alternatives.

CD Neighbor
CD Neighbor
24 days ago
Reply to  Annoyed

I would think that it shouldn’t be up to you figure it out at all…. you should still dial 911 or the non-emergency line or put in a find it fix it and the dispatcher should evaluate the situation and decide who best to send….

RWK
RWK
24 days ago
Reply to  Annoyed

I agree that it’s unclear how this program works. There has been a squalid, open-air homeless camp at the NE corner of Broadway and Harrison for weeks now, mainly occupied by a young woman who is obviously in need to mental health treatment. She, and others who hang out at that location, have refused all services offered by the city’s contracted (nonprofit) outreach workers. It’s not exactly an acute emergency situation, so I haven’t called 911, but maybe that’s what I will do soon. But how can I be sure that HealthOne will do something about this particular situation?

Fairly Obvious
Fairly Obvious
23 days ago
Reply to  RWK

But how can I be sure that HealthOne will do something about this particular situation?

Well, when you write off a new program before you even try it, you’ll never be sure.

It’s like the people that complain about potholes. You ask them if they’ve submitted a pothole fix request to Seattle and their answer is no, because they don’t think Seattle will actually repair the pothole, even though they’ve never attempted to report a pothole.

I get it Bob, you’re very skeptical of any homeless outreach that doesn’t guarantee 100% immediate effectiveness from the get go, but let’s at least give this one a chance.

RWK
RWK
22 days ago
Reply to  Fairly Obvious

I reported the situation at Broadway & Harrison to 911. They didn’t think a police officer was needed and neither did I, so they transferred me to the Fire Department. The dispatcher there said they would respond, but could not say if the response would be by HealthOne.

CD Neighbor
CD Neighbor
22 days ago
Reply to  RWK

I don’t think the question is will they respond, but rather will they actually be able to do anything once they get there. Unless HealthOne actually has some power to act, other than persuasion I can’t see how this program will change anything. If the person has refused outreach before, it’s likely they’ll simply continue. One of the big problems we have here is that we have a very, very narrow definition of what constitutes self harm/harm to others and it’s rather simple to go untreated for mental illness or addiction – just refuse to go. Unless the person is doing something that will result in their immediate death or actively, violently attacking someone they can send as many firefighters and social workers as they want and more often than not, nothing will happen. Then if the person does cross that line they’ll send the police… it shouldn’t be a surprise that because we let people get so far out of control that tragic things happen.

RWK
RWK
21 days ago
Reply to  CD Neighbor

I’m sure you are right. If someone falls and breaks their leg in a public space, they get immediate help and a trip to the hospital. But when someone has a severe mental illness, almost everyone looks the other way, or at best an outreach worker visits and is rebuffed, and that person’s mental illness goes untreated. It is unacceptable that the City has no willingness to take care of the mentally ill in the same way that physical injuries are handled.

Fairly Obvious
Fairly Obvious
22 days ago
Reply to  RWK

The dispatcher there said they would respond, but could not say if the response would be by HealthOne.

My guess is that the program is so new, they’re probably getting familiar with it on their end. So the dispatcher might have legitimately not known.

Given time, I think this will be a good stop gap solution while our city and nation struggle to figure out a way to deal with the ongoing homeless, mental health and addiction crisis.

P.S. I report potholes on a regular basis, and have noticed that the response time is excellent.

Sorry, not my intention to accuse you of that. I just hope that HealthOne doesn’t fall into a similar situation like the Pothole Rangers where people don’t know about it or even refuse to use it because they’re convinced it won’t work.

RWK
RWK
22 days ago
Reply to  Fairly Obvious

P.S. I report potholes on a regular basis, and have noticed that the response time is excellent.

John
John
24 days ago

Hi – quick correction. The Fire Chief’s last name is Scoggins, not Scroggins as you have it.

jseattle
Admin
23 days ago
Reply to  John

Thanks. Sorry for the typo.