STAR dispatches health clinicians and paramedics in the place of police officers to handle nonviolent situations, such as mental health emergencies, overdoses, or welfare checks. The combined effort involves a number of community groups, including Mental Health Center of Denver, Denver Justice Project, Denver Alliance for Street Health Response (DASHR), Denver Homeless Out Loud, and Caring 4 Denver. The STAR program, initially funded by $200,000 from the Caring 4 Denver Foundation, responds to the immediate situation and connects individuals with services they can turn to following an encounter.
Now, STAR is set to expand. Denverite recently reported that a Denver City Council committee voted to send a proposal for $1 million in additional STAR funding to the full council. This, on top of the $1.4 million the city’s 2021 budget had allocated for the program. The Department of Public Health and Environment, which oversees STAR, also applied for $1.4 million more from Caring 4 Denver.
The funding could help expand the van fleet from one to four—and, according to the city’s proposed 2021 budget, enable the program operate in all six police districts. (STAR currently serves the central downtown area, South Broadway to Mississippi Avenue, and temporary homeless shelters at the Denver Coliseum and National Western Complex.) Despite its growing network, however, STAR isn’t a complete alternative to police. And with COVID-19 restrictions being lifted, Jennifer Schwartz, the operations manager for Denver 911, says calls to the city’s emergency line are increasing and ticking up to pre-pandemic levels.
Of course, people should continue to utilize 911 when they feel it’s appropriate. However, in instances where an emergency isn’t occurring—think: burglaries that are no longer in progress, noise complaints—Schwartz recommends calling Denver Police Department’s non-emergency phone number: 720-913-2000. (Calls for things such as garbage collection or homeless encampment should be routed to 311, the city of Denver’s general services phone number. Alternatively, Pocketgov Denver is an online resource where people can submit questions or report problems.) But those looking to avoid calling the police have another, nongovernmental resource to turn to, as well.
In June 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, Los Angeles–based nonprofit attorney Mallory Sepler-King founded dontcallthepolice.com after learning about how many emergency calls do not involve violent crime. Sepler-King created a one-stop hub of community-based resources listing police alternatives, specifically “when faced with a situation that requires de-escalation and/or intervention, not violence,” according to the website.
Dontcallthepolice.com lists resources by city, and Denver has a page of its own. The provided resources span across a number of categories, including housing, LGBTQ, mental health, domestic violence, crime, substance abuse, and risk prevention for youths. A section on elders is coming soon.
Each submission is personally vetted by Sepler-King, which includes calling each resource and finding out what their policies are regarding police involvement. “Another big part of this change … is relearning how to evaluate when outside involvement is absolutely necessary,” she says. “There’s a tendency to call the police because you see something and you don’t understand it and it makes you uncomfortable.”
Vinnie Cervantes, organizing director of Denver Alliance for Street Health Response (DASHR), a public health and safety nonprofit, agrees. “In interpreting a situation, are you or someone in direct threat or harm? If not, is it your business?” he asks. “We get a lot of folks who call the police or call 911 when they’re really just perceiving something to be a threat when it’s really not.” He believes the number of 911 calls will only increase because of displacement. “As we’re seeing gentrification take place in Denver, which is one of the most highly gentrified cities in the country, we’re going to see a completely different narrative and understanding of what safety is, and that’s something that we need to get ahead of.”
To help with that mission, we’ve outlined a few local resources to contact in place of the police.
Mental Health/Substance Abuse
Operated by the Colorado Department of Human Services, Colorado Crisis Services (CCS) is similar to STAR: People text or call in for free (1-844-493-8255, or Text “TALK” to 38255) about a number of issues, including depression, anxiety, self-injury, suicidal thoughts, domestic abuse, homelessness, and more, on behalf of themselves or concerns for others.
Callers can choose to be connected to either a trained mental health professional or peer specialist—someone who has experienced a similar situation and has been trained to aid others—who will then provide information, referrals, and follow-up care. Individuals can also walk into any of the CCS locations, which are open 24/7, and receive a clinical evaluation. Some locations even provide a crisis bed for up to five days of voluntary or involuntary treatment.
If an individual needs more immediate assistance, CCS can dispatch a Mobile Crisis Clinician. Camille Harding, Colorado Department of Human Services’ strategy and innovation officer, says a mobile response is determined by a variety of risk factors, such as mental health status, suicidal ideation, age group, and ability to care for oneself. The program visits about 840 patients a month.
DASHR distributes survival gear and first aid to communities in Denver experiencing homelessness. Formerly, DASHR volunteers, along with medics, took to the streets on Sundays to distribute these resources directly. The pandemic hit pause on that, but they plan to reboot the program this summer and expand it to other days of the week.
DASHR also aids unhoused people that are subject to sweeps by helping them move and making sure they have what they need. Plus, DASHR protected protestors last summer with medics, supply stations, and a safehouse. The nonprofit is still working on responding to immediate crises. “If we can respond, we will, and people do call us for that kind of stuff, but it’s not always the case that we can respond,” Cervantes says. “A lot of what we’re working on this year is expanding our capacity to be able to do that kind of stuff on a more regular basis.”
SafeHouse Denver has a 24-hour crisis and information hotline (734-995-5444) for those experiencing abuse, and those that know someone who is experiencing abuse. They have a range of services, including emergency shelter, counseling, extended-stay housing, support groups, and referral services.
Emergency shelter is available on a first-come, first-serve basis for individuals or families and provides survivors with food, bedding and personal hygiene products.