Durham set to expand popular mental health response program: HEART

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Friday, October 20, 2023
Durham set to expand its mental health crisis response program
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Holistic Empathetic Assistance Response Team (HEART) members work alongside 911 on calls that don't always require police or ambulance.

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- The city of Durham is adding to its crisis response program.

For almost a year and a half, the Holistic Empathetic Assistance Response Team or HEART program has been working alongside 911 to find a different way to reach the kind of calls that don't always require police or ambulance.

The HEART program is based in city hall - from there, crews go out in teams to respond to people in a mental health crisis with teams of crisis counselors and social workers.

Soon you'll see more of their crews around town. After new funding was approved in the budget, 19 more positions were added, allowing HEART to expand citywide 12 hours a day every day.

One of those new hires is David Newcomb. He says becoming a peer support specialist is a dream job for him.

"I was on the streets for 2 years, recovering alcoholic, and The barriers that I went through is what I see a lot of people going through here," he says.

Newcomb says he was impressed by what he saw of the program and jumped at the chance to apply when he got the chance. He says given his background, it allows to relate better to those he would be helping.

"Not a lot of the calls need police with mental health substance abuse and that's where we can come in fill a niche," Newcomb says.

The pilot program was launched back in June 2022. The expanded territory and hours begin this Monday.

"We'll be working 365 days a year at least 12 hours a day so it's a big expansion and we move from a staff of about 20 staff to now about 50 staff," says director Ryan Smith.

Smith showed us their command center inside City Hall. Crews get the same access as other emergency crews when calls come in.

From there, crews have radios and gear and can respond to the calls in teams of counselors and social workers.

Smith is hoping the logo on their jackets and trucks will help Bull City residents understand who they are and what they do.

Amid the success of the program, there was an effort among community groups to push for expanded funding on the program on a more permanent basis, something the City Council decided to do.

"Sometimes people don't need handcuffs, they need a doctor, they need a counselor they need a meal, this is only making us a more humane government, a more robust government," says Mayor Pro Tempore Mark-Anthony Middleton.

Middleton says while some of the expansion required more money, some were simply shifting open positions.

A city hoping to lead by example, in a way that other parts of the country can follow.

"People across the nation are starting to see that this will work, and Durham is leading the way," Newcomb says.

Since the pilot program launched, they've responded to over 8,000 calls. Just as before, with the expansion, it still works the same - you call 911 and dispatch will decide who responds to the call, whether that be police, fire, ambulance, or in this case, a HEART crew.