Participants are now involved in Mental Health Response with the Denver Park Rangers

In 2020, when protests against police brutality swept the streets of Denver, The city launched a long planned programme To remove officers from positions social workers are best served.

And so the Support Assisted Response team, widely known as STAR, started with a single truck and a limited pilot to see how it would go. Their most common mission: to help people living abroad or dealing with addiction rather than handing out a quote.

the program Outgrew Since those early days, and now it has a cousin dedicated to Denver’s green spaces.

Last September, the City Council voted to place two respondents with city park rangers, who are employees of Denver Parks and Recreation. The workers will come from WellPower, a nonprofit formerly known as the Denver Mental Health Center, which also staffs the STAR team. Wellpower He says it’s the first program like this in the nation. It started in early December, with a social worker covering the city’s entire park system, which includes places like Red Rocks, between the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., seven days a week.

The Denver Rangers needed some help.

Connecting his team with park staff was a fairly easy process, said Chris Richardson, a WellPower supervisor who helped launch STAR.

“I hope it’s not a negative, because I think they’d actually wear it as a badge of honor, but they’re like really nice, caring, hippie people,” he said. “They’re very easy to spot, they all have beards and it’s like they got into this to love to help.”

Park Ranger Ryan Philian crosses a river at Red Rocks, July 11, 2017. (Kevin G. Petty/Denverett) Red Rocks;  the Civilian Conservation Corps;  History;  Kivingipiti.  Morrison.  Colorado.  deniferite.
Kevin G. Beatty/Denverite

A lot of her colleagues’ backgrounds don’t help people in crisis, especially without support, said Caronia DiStefano, a supervising park ranger.

“We get into this kind of work because we’re ecologists, or we have a passion for our common earth,” she said. “And so we really, when faced with these difficult connections, didn’t know how to deal with it.”

People can experience meltdowns or overdoses anywhere, but both Richardon and DiStefano said gardens deserve special focus.

“Historically, parks were seen as safe places for people,” Richardson said. “They can collect themselves, they can have peace of mind, they can think. It’s open to everyone, and it’s supposed to be that safe place. And especially with our unhoused neighbors downtown, it’s a safe place for them, too.”

Chris Richardson and Randy Edwards, staff at the Denver Mental Health Center, talk to Charles Gilmore on a sidewalk on North Capitol Hill.  July 30, 2020.
Kevin G. Beatty/Denverite

DiStefano said her colleagues started contacting STAR regularly as soon as she started. But service has been limited, and it’s usually occupied elsewhere, meaning bouncers can’t attract social workers as often as they need to. She and her colleagues are grateful to have mental health experts dedicated to their impulses.

“Being able to deliver that on site is a real game changer for us,” she said. “It’s incredible to see how they can connect people to exactly what they need.”

There are still a lot of people who need help in Denver. This joint response program is the latest in a series of new projects to help.

2020 has been a challenging time for everyone, Richardson said, but it has also been a crucible for new ideas.

“I think 2020 has allowed Denver to kind of grow and create new things that no one else has thought of. STAR has been a part of that, but also Safe outdoor spaces It showed up during that time,” he said. “So I’m hopeful that Denver’s future is really bright, to be able to help continue to provide additional services to the people that we connect with and do that in a timely, low-barrier-to-access way. “

He added that things are still difficult for people who live on the city’s streets, even though Denver feels different now than it did a few years ago.

Veria Kelsang, an advocate who spends a lot of time helping homeless people, said the current state of things worries her. I’ve seen more frostbite this season than in years past and more people needing a hand.

Kelsang said she was cautiously optimistic about respondents taking walks with park rangers.

“I’m a little concerned, a little concerned about this. The Park Rangers haven’t always been best friends with the homeless. They, you know, kick people out in the middle of the night,” she tells us. “If they see the need for mental health professionals, it’s worth trying. I mean, anything that will help unsedated people make ends meet is something I would be willing to support and see how it works.”

Kelsang Virya helps feed people outside the city of Denver and the county seat before the city council addresses people who might be evicted from a hotel, which was set up during the pandemic for people without homes.  August 29, 2022.
Kevin G. Beatty/Denverite

DiStefano said her guards have already seen success.

“Recently, we had a co-responder contact with an individual who had been living in one of our gardens on and off for a long time. We knew the individual, he had alcoholism and he was struggling with homelessness. And we were never able to connect with him in a way that made him excited about the resources.” “One respondent was able to chat with him and, upon their first contact, connect him to an intake program through WellPower and get him ready and into recovery. It was amazing to see.”

She added that if you’re at a park and see someone who needs help, call 311. If you leave a message for park rangers, their management will get it right away and dispatch their WellPower partner as quickly as possible.

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