An upcoming "Car 40" program coming pairing Penticton police officers with mental health workers has politicians and outreach workers hopeful of the positive impacts in the community, but not without the acknowledgement that it won’t solve the entire problem.
After years of lobbying efforts, Penticton is finally joining the ranks of communities like Kelowna and Kamloops with the roll-out of a Car 40 program.
The provincially-funded mobile integrated crisis team program pairs RCMP officers with healthcare professionals to better address the needs of people they come across daily who may be in mental health distress.
The aim is to better provide support those people in the community.
Jennifer Whiteside, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, spoke to local media on Wednesday morning alongside Penticton Mayor Julius Bloomfield.
Whiteside said the hope is that the teams will be up and running in the fall.
“The health authority is ready to go to post the positions on their site. I know the municipality has worked very closely with the RCMP detachment here, they're ready to go,” she added.
“What we're seeing is, really the need is across the province for a more structured approach to how we are providing community mental health services.”
Bloomfield said he hopes this program will help those with addictions recover, a reduction in overdose deaths and a reduction in crime.
“All of these things, I think go hand in hand. And I think that I'm working towards having a healthier community,” he added.
Penticton is just one of the nine communities selected since the province committed $3 million to help fund their implementation throughout British Columbia.
“As the drug crisis evolved and became a major problem in Penticton, as it has in other centres, it became apparent that this was not just a policing problem. This was something we had to look at other ways for tackling the problem,” Bloomfield said.
“That takes time to evolve and so instead of just blindly hiring more RCMP officers, council's focus shifted to concentrating on other services that would help the RCMP in doing their job and would help the people on the street in finding recovery.”
Bloomfield said that this is just one of the tools to do that.
“I want to reiterate that this is not the silver bullet that's going to solve the problem. But it is a vital tool that we're going to be putting in the toolbox to deal with the problems that people on the street are facing."
Whiteside said the program, which has been around for many years, has seen success and impacts in other communities that it operates.
“Those teams that are active in Kamloops and other communities have demonstrated just through the number of calls they take, I mean, in excess of 100 calls a month, where we are really using a mental health approach and looking at providing the kind of care and support that that individual needs and avoiding that interaction being a policing interaction, which is not always the right way to approach that situation,” she said.
The “trauma-informed approach” is what is said to ensure that individuals are better connected to a health care assessment that they need, whether that becomes any help with any immediate health care, physical health care issues or connecting that individual to care through the mental health system, whether it’s through Interior Health or another provider.
Desiree Surowski, the cofounder of Penticton Area Overdose Prevention Society (P+OPS), which works as a mobile overdose prevention site and hands out survival equipment, water, and coffee, while also connecting people to resources, said this is a good step forward.
“Car 40 will be great. I personally have had to call RCMP for mental wellness checks on my loved ones, and while the RCMP officer was fantastic, it still isn't that someone with in-depth training to deal with someone who's in a crisis,” she said.
“To be able to have that reassurance that there's someone who has that extensive training can assess that situation and get that person where they need to go is really exciting.”
Surowski added that this is another step to bridge that gap of being inclusive for the population they help serve.
“We know that a lot of the marginalized population has a bad history with RCMP. And that's not to say all RCMP officers are bad at their job, or they don't connect well with clients. But because of that preconceived notion, a lot of our clients have from past situations, they don't trust [the RCMP].”
While this is a positive step, Surowski, along with Whitehall and Bloomfield, acknowledged that there is more to be done in helping individuals in a mental health or substance-use crisis.
“This announcement comes very shortly after the announcement of pathways closing, which is great that we're getting added services, but we can't forget that right now we have this added service with the removal of a service as well. So it's not just about replacing services, it's about enhancing everything and not losing things at the same time,” Surowski said.
Whiteside commented on the care plans now that Pathways is closing, saying the ministry and health authority are “very focused on building an integrated system of care for people who require mental health and substance use support.”
Surowski said she feels the people who will benefit from the program are not necessarily the clients she helps in her outreach work.
“I really see this Car 40 program really making a difference in people who maybe have closed doors, maybe don't want people to know about their mental health crises. And that'll help them kind of transition into hospital settings or the hospital care or whatever care they need,” she said.
“The thing about the unhoused population is we know what they need; they need housing, they need their survival needs met and they need health care appropriate to them. Is this Car 40 going to give that to them? Probably not. But where we see the benefits are probably with less strain on the RCMP having to deal with mental health calls on their own. And that will benefit our population because burnout is real.”
Bloomfield said the city will be monitoring the data very closely for the impacts the program makes.
“Stay tuned and see what improvements come.”