Nathaniel Rosenberg, Contributing Reporter

Four months after its launch, New Haven’s non-violent first responder program is being hailed as a success and is looking to grow. 

The pilot program, Elm City Compassionate Allies Serving Our Streets, was launched last November, after Mayor Justin Elicker first proposed it in August 2020 in response to local protests over the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. The program’s crisis teams — made up of one social worker and one “peer recovery specialist” — have responded to over 275 calls, with just over a third of those calls being responses to 911 emergency dispatches.

“We’re not going to let this fail. This is here to stay,” said Ta’LannaMonique Lawson-Dickson, a member of COMPASS’s Comunity Advisory Board, at a Feb. 17th press conference on the program. “And this is just the beginning, more systems are going to be created from this, more supports are going to be created from this. I’m excited to see what that’s going to look like in the future.” 

New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker agreed, describing the results of the pilot as a “huge success” and endorsing an expansion of the teams.

As of Feb. 17, 37 percent of COMPASS responses were made to emergency situations after being requested by the police or fire department. Crisis team members highlighted instances where people were dealing with mental health crises or domestic disputes, but they can be called for any situation where first-responders determine they would be more helpful.

Of the calls that come from the 911 dispatch, 65 percent of calls for COMPASS were requested by New Haven Police.

At the press conference, NHPD Chief Karl Jacobson emphasized his excitement about the pilot’s progress. 

“It takes a long time to get somebody from a position of substance abuse and homelessness to the other side,” Jacobson said.“The police need help. We need help. And this is the help. It’s a breath of fresh air to have the backing, we can call someone else who has better skills than us for other things.”

The majority of the cases the team had dealt with— 63 percent — were not in response to emergency situations but rather self-deployed dispatches by the crisis team while they drove around New Haven. COMPASS’s current schedule has one two-person team in the field every day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

“When we go out to outreach, it’s amazing that people remember our names, they come to us,” said Nanette Campbell, a COMPASS Recovery Support Specialist. “I remember an incident where a woman was in crisis, but she remembered my face, and she let me allow her to get the help that she needed.”

Eventually, that woman let the team admit her to a hospital.

One aspect of the COMPASS program that city officials touted was their ability to follow up with people they met multiple times, so that they could connect them with or stay in longer term social service programs, including for those suffering from mental illness, dealing with substance abuse issues or in need of permanent housing.

But Dr. Jack Tebes, COMPASS’s director and a Yale psychiatry professor, said at the press conference that one of the biggest challenges facing the team was the massive waiting times to receive social services in New Haven, especially for those seeking permanent shelter or housing.

 “We also recognize the time that it will take to build trust with individuals that may have lost faith in the system,” Tebes said. “It’s no surprise to anyone probably that we have a shortage of beds, insufficient housing and the experience of waitlist after waitlist after waitlist.”

When asked about the issue of waitlists, Mehul Dalal, New Haven’s Community Services Administrator, agreed with Tebes assessment, describing the situation as a “huge challenge.” 

Dalal highlighted the city’s plans to use $5 million federal dollars for “deeply affordable” housing, on top of a litany of other investments, to help alleviate the waiting list for housing and make the crisis team’s job easier.

The city is considering several ways to expand the program, and in July will expand the time the team is in the field from 8 a.m. to 12 a.m.

“Next year, we’re gonna decide whether we expand to 24 hours of services, or we have overlapping teams during peak hours,” said Carlos Sosa-Lombardo, the director of the Department of Community Resilience. “ We will look at the data and make an informed decision when the time comes.”

The COMPASS team’s average response time to emergency dispatches was 13 minutes.

Nathaniel Rosenberg is City Editor for the News. He previously served as Audience Editor, where he managed the News's newsletter content, covered cops and courts and housing and homelessness for the City Desk. Originally from Silver Spring, MD, he is a junior in Morse College majoring in history.