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City launches new program to address nonviolent emergency calls involving the homeless

The city Friday launched its new Crisis Outreach Response and Engagement program, which will use a separate teams of first responders to address nonviolent emergency calls involving the homeless.

The long-awaited initiative will divert low-level 911 calls to the CORE teams instead of dispatching emergency services that include the Honolulu Fire Department, Honolulu Police Department and Department of Emergency Services.

The program has changed over time. The original concept was supposed to divert nonviolent, homeless-related 911 calls away from HPD, sending social workers in their place.

However, the new CORE teams comprise three to four EMTs and at least one community health worker. What separates the CORE teams from traditional EMS is that they plan to follow up with patients after they are released from the medical service provider to get them placed into some type of housing such as a shelter or transitional housing.

“We want to interrupt that cycle. And I think the key is if the patient doesn’t need to go to the emergency room, we want to take them to a more appropriate level of care, such as a clinic or a detox or homeless shelter,” said EMS Director Jim Ireland during his Friday appearance on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s “Spotlight Hawaii” livestream program.

“After their ER visit, we don’t want to just say goodbye … we want the ER to let us know what’s happening after their ER visit. And so we can engage them again, help them get to a shelter, help them get referred into the existing care network that’s already there.”

Ireland explained that the department hopes to hire social workers for the CORE teams as the program progresses.

In another change from the original concept, CORE will operate about 12 hours a day within the Honolulu urban core of downtown, Chinatown and Waikiki. Initial plans called for islandwide, 24/7 operations.

CORE is being funded by federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act. It was awarded $3.5 million for the first year, but that could increase to $5 million, Ireland said.

Ireland hopes the program will show tangible differences in the day-to-day lives of those it serves as well as those in the community at large.

“I think a lot of times, the businesses want to see is somebody’s not necessarily sleeping in front of their business 24 hours a day, and people want parks available for children and for sports activities, and not makeshift tent cities,” he said.

“I think those are the visual impacts we can make in the community as we help people, as well as numbers and data.”

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