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Denver Expands STAR Program, Resources For Mental Health

DENVER (CBS4) – People in Denver experiencing mental health crises will soon have more help. Denver City Council voted to expand the Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) program, allowing resources like additional behavioral health professionals to engage with those experiencing homelessness and substance abuse.

The STAR program was created in 2020 as an alternative option for a mental health professional and paramedic to respond to low-level calls instead of a police officer.

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STAR has since responded to almost 2,800 calls. Police backup has never been needed during any of those call for a safety issue. The resolution approves a contract with Mental Health Center of Denver for $1,391,579 through the end of 2022.

Councilwoman Robin Kniech says it minimizes "unnecessary arrests and unnecessary costs."

"This contract is important because it's the first time this contract has been brought forward by our health department, experts in people who are experiencing mental health crises and need medical care," said Kniech. "It's the right agency leading it and they do it in partnership with others, but it belongs to the community. This program was born from community advocates, parents, caregivers, and people who wanted to see us do something different."

Denver 911 STAR Operations Manager, Carleigh Sailon, says STAR has three units running consistently, covering seven days a week from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. They're working their way up to 10 teams and six vans.

"One of the things that I can't stand to hear is 'I called STAR and I didn't get a STAR response.' We're still building up capacity. Our goal is to have every STAR eligible call in the city receive a STAR response and receive the right response when one of our community members is in crisis. Any additional funding additional units and additional employees will absolutely help meet that need," said Sailon.

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While many of the calls help Denver's unhoused community, Sailon says STAR responds to a wide array of people.

"We respond to folks in their homes who were dealing with depression and anxiety due to the COVID pandemic, people who were visiting Denver who were in crisis during their trip," said Sailon.

Kyle Fischler, Associate Director of Homelessness Resolution at Denver Rescue Mission, says he's seem the impact of STAR firsthand.

"The issues that we run into are so difficult. The fact that we have STAR out there that can help connect people to larger services, and they don't come back, it breaks the cycle," said Fischler.

"The STAR Program addresses more systemic issues that arise in the community. This isn't just handing somebody food and doing something that's charitable. It's answering larger problems."

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