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June 22, 2023

Philly mobile crisis response units eye expansion with extra $3 million in funding

The city's budget will provide additional funds for the mental health service, which has scaled dramatically since Walter Wallace Jr.'s 2020 death

City Council approved a $6.2 billion budget for the 2024 fiscal year on Thursday, one which earmarks sizable funds to upgrade Philly's rec centers, clean up business corridors and offer hiring bonuses for certain city jobs. The budget also provides an extra $3 million for mobile crisis response units, which are currently in the middle of a dramatic transformation sparked by 2020 protests against police brutality.

Mobile crisis response units are designed to decrease police involvement in mental health crises in order to avoid escalations like the killing of Walter Wallace Jr., a bipolar Black man who was shot by police in West Philadelphia on Oct. 26, 2020. Consisting of crisis specialists, peer specialists and medical professionals, these units are dispatched through Philadelphia's 988 mental crisis hotline — a national number launched last year which has supplanted the old 215-686-4420 regional line.

While these services existed prior to 2020, Wallace's death sparked a complete overhaul internally nicknamed "Crisis 2.0." More full-time staffers were hired to provide 24/7 crisis coverage across the city, and crisis line workers were embedded in the 911 radio room to divert calls that do not require a police response back to 988. In the past year and a half, those embedded employees have rerouted roughly 1,200 calls, according to Jill Bowen, commissioner of the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services.

Most of the 988 calls are resolved over the phone — Bowen estimates only 10% result in a dispatch — but for those that do require a physical intervention, the same team speaking to the caller on the phone hops in a discreet vehicle without wailing sirens. After the initial de-escalation, crisis units follow up with individuals within 48 hours and sometimes for as long as six weeks to provide additional help and connect them with resources. Most people who use the system report a positive experience; Bowen says 75% rate it five stars out of five.

"The Philadelphia model is meant to be a community response," Bowen says. "It's meant to work with a person where they are and also anyone they want you to work with, (like) families or other significant people in their lives."

Calls to the mental health crisis line have been climbing steadily. Between 2020 and 2021, crisis workers received 86,000 calls, a 21% jump from the previous year. Bowen says calls rose another 14.5% between 2021 and 2022 and that call volume has increased "most months" in 2023.

The increases might point to widespread distress, but they could also point to greater awareness of the 988 number, which has been the subject of numerous PSAs, radio spots and newsstand posters. With the extra budgetary funding secured Thursday, a boost over the $6 million normally allotted for the units, Bowen is hopeful her staff can solve some of the extra strain and bring down their current response time, which is about 1 hour and 8 minutes. The ultimate goal is half an hour, and they'll need additional staff support and possibly some tech upgrades to get there, she says.

"People in behavioral health crises are already in distress," Bowen says. "You don't want a system that adds trauma to it."

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