DENVER (CBS4) – Denver's mental health crisis is a visible one. On many streets, people suffer from illnesses as they wander and set up camp along many roads.
To help those in need, the city has a pair of programs aimed at providing support and resources. The city's well-known STAR program – Support Team Assisted Response – responds to mental health crises that do not warrant a police officer. A paramedic and mental health professional are dispatched instead. There's also a team called SET – Street Enforcement Team – which is made up of civilians who can issue citations under certain circumstances.
Now, some advocates feel like the companion programs are bringing an opposite approach to vulnerable communities.
"STAR is meant to support people in crisis and connect them with services, conduct treatment on site if needed. Whereas SET has been presented as one that is going to explicitly ticket, harass, engage unhoused folks in a way that evokes a violent policy," said Vinnie Cervantes, a member of the STAR Advisory Committee.
Cervantes said the SET program is setting STAR back, instead criminalizing and harassing unhoused people.
"We think it's an extension of the nature of policing by expanding their ability to ticket and cite people for trying to survive on the streets," he told CBS4's Kelly Werthmann.
"It's more complex than that," said Jeff Holliday, Deputy Director of Denver's Department of Public Safety.
Holliday oversees SET and explained the civilian team was created to have a "kinder, gentler" approach to violations within the unhoused community. While the team can issue citations, he said not one has ever been given.
"As a licensed clinician myself, it is important to me that we're meeting people where they're at and in the moment somebody identifies a need for care and asks for care," he said, "that SET shifts its approach and immediately starts to work with that individual to access services."
Holliday told CBS4 SET often works with STAR to provide those services. He said the programs are like two different tools in the same toolbox.
"Programs like SET have an important place, programs like STAR have an important place," said Holliday. "While they function differently, they also function in a complimentary fashion."
Yet STAR's advisory committee disagrees, and Cervantes said its calling for an end to the SET program.
"[STAR] stands against the things we want to do as a community," said Cervantes.
CBS4 also reached out to staff at STAR and received a statement saying, in part,
"While we appreciate the input of the committee and our team works closely with the committee to understand the community's needs, they are not responsible for the administration of the STAR program and Mr. Cervantes's views do not represent the views of DDPHE, the City or the STAR program."
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