As most voters are aware, it can feel like ages between the moment a ballot initiative is passed on Election Day and its implementation. In the case of Caring for Denver (the ballot initiative aimed at helping Denverites experiencing mental health struggles and substance misuse issues) it’s been 15 months of waiting. But for good reason.

The initiative created a foundation, which recently rolled out a list of three grant recipients set to receive about $2 million. This is part of what is estimated to be an annual total of approximately $35 million in revenue from the $0.25 sales tax this year. But before deciding on the programs to help fund, the foundation had to do its due diligence. First, it applied and received approval as a 501c3 nonprofit, then formed their board of directors, and hired staff—all in less than three months time. Next, led by executive director Lorez Meinhold, the foundation spoke with more than 1,500 community members, worked with more than 60 organizations, and conducted a poll to determine what, exactly, Denver really wanted. 

This first set of grant recipients mainly addresses alternatives to jail, co-responders programs, and training for first responders, since these were the areas outlined in the original initiative. If the programs are effective, the hope is that they may be adopted by other cities in Colorado and throughout the country. “We’re hoping that we serve as a model,” says Colorado Rep. Leslie Herod, who championed the ballot initiative and now serves as the foundation’s board chair. Here’s a look at where the money’s going. 

1. Expansion of the Co-Responder Program | $1,762,405

This program will expand a partnership between the Denver Police Department (DPD) and Mental Health Center of Denver by adding 10 mental health clinicians—who will ride along with law enforcement professionals to respond to calls where there is a known or expected mental or substance misuse need involved—and 11 case managers. Police districts with higher volumes of calls will receive those additional clinicians. (Districts 3 and 4, which together cover Denver’s southern half, will each receive two additional clinicians.)

The role of case managers, in contrast to the mitigation efforts of clinicians, involves comprehensive follow-ups with individuals. In 2018, after incidents with law enforcement, 71 people were connected to housing through the program. Now, with a greater number of people and resources, that number could grow.

Leslie Herod Caring 4 Denver
State Representative Leslie Herod.

2. Support Team Assisted Response | $208,141

The DPD will adopt Support Team Assisted Response (STAR), a community response program modeled after the CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) in Eugene, Oregon.  After visiting Eugene to observe CAHOOTS, Herod was inspired to adopt and adapt the plan to fit Denver’s needs. 

To see how well the teams worked with law enforcement and how well respected they are in the community was really, really inspiring,” Herod says. Since Eugene and Denver have many differences (Eugene has a population of 170,000, is more rural, and less diverse than Denver), STAR will be a pilot program so that officials can determine what works. With DPD on board to try the program out, Herod believes the city has shown its true commitment to addressing the issues of mental health and substance misuse in a more “humane” way.

The program will pair EMTs and paramedics with health clinicians or peer navigators to respond to 911 dispatches involving a mental health or substance misuse issue. 

3. Verbal De-Escalation Training for First Responders | $24,246

Denver Health Paramedics and the Denver Fire Department will be equipped with tools that can help curtail the escalation of potentially threatening situations involving substance misuse or mental health distress. The training program, which is a pilot, will use Denver law enforcement’s existing Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) as a starting point.

As for what’s next on the docket, Caring for Denver is gearing up to review new grant proposals from city agencies, schools, nonprofits, and other stakeholder groups. After March, when the exact 2019 tax revenue is released (it’s expected to be close to $36.1 million), the foundation will review submitted proposals. Since the foundation is still brand new, they plan to review proposals and award grants one at a time. “We want to make sure we’re doing it right before we open up the next [grant area],” says Meinhold. 

Regardless of how many programs the foundation is able to fund this year, every penny of funding will be doled out. “We want the money in community,” Meinhold says. In particular, Herod hopes to see underserved populations and “unlikely contenders,” like groups who have never been funded by a large foundation before, vie for grant money. 

Seeing tangible results may take some time, but Caring for Denver is optimistic. “I want to be clear that what we’re asking for here is a culture shift,” Herod says. “It’s not easy, but I’m so glad that these folks are on board.”