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About Mental Health

The San Mateo Police Department’s new homeless outreach team has seen good results in its work to connect unsheltered people with housing and other critical resources, with the two-person team a consistent sight on the streets.

Victoria Asfour, San Mateo Police Department’s first homeless outreach analyst, and retired SMPD Officer Dave Johnson, speaking with a client at St. Vincent de Paul in downtown San Mateo.
Arianna Cunha, Daily Journal

The team is made up of Victoria Asfour and Dave Johnson, a two-person homeless outreach team that triages all homeless calls coming in from officers, city officials, nonprofit partners and the public in San Mateo. Asfour and Johnson provide the emotional and logistical support police officers and case workers don’t have the time to perform because of their extensive caseloads. The pairs’ responsibilities include taking people to the DMV, court, clothing and grocery shopping, picking up medication from pharmacies, rides to appointments and finding housing. The team does not do any enforcement. They often might take people to the nonprofit Samaritan House, the core agency in San Mateo responsible for homeless services, or visit someone daily to ensure they get the resources and support they need to improve their lives. They often help people fill out applications for low-income housing to talk about their day. Most visits are about meeting clients where they are and identifying their needs.

“A lot of times, things fall beneath the cracks, and so we step in and fill the gaps of things that are missing and make sure it gets done, so the process doesn’t stop for somebody,” Johnson said.

Asfour said the key is letting people know they care and are just as important as anyone else, with the team committed to walking them through anything they need.

“Our end goal is to find them a more stable position where they are in a more healthy environment in the community,” Asfour said.

The team started six months ago as a team focused on outreach to the homeless instead of enforcement. Asfour was hired in September as the department’s first homeless outreach analyst, a nonenforcement job to help the homeless. The duo has worked with about 77 clients over the first three months, with more than 200 contacts with those clients. There have been days of seeing as many as 10 to 12 clients. However, it is typically less because each day brings different responsibilities and people. Asfour previously worked with the nonprofit LifeMoves on its homeless outreach teams. Johnson is a retired San Mateo police officer who returned in 2019 because he wanted to solve problems in an outreach scenario instead of enforcement. Asfour earned a Bachelor of Science in criminal justice and a master’s degree in social work from California State University East Bay and has always viewed helping others through the police department as her calling.

Many clients suffer from mental health issues and alcohol and drug challenges, leading to self-medication and keeping them from getting into housing. Even if they get into housing, they need help to prevent eviction through consistent addiction support. Once people are housed, the team partners with nonprofits like LifeMoves to have them take over providing services while still communicating with the client and guiding them to the nonprofits. The team works with LifeMoves, St. Vincent de Paul, Samaritan House and community partners at hospitals, the San Mateo County Homeless Outreach Team and mental health providers to help the client.

“We are trying to help make sure when they get into a shelter or housing, they stay permanently there,” Johnson said.

The team has the flexibility and discretion to determine the best action to handle and prioritize each call. People who refuse assistance are offered snacks, clothing and hygiene kits, with the team often visiting again if allowed so they can continue to be there to provide support. Many clients at first don’t trust and are resistant to any service and are often the most difficult. Many other agencies are overworked and don’t have the resources to help them, leaving Asfour and Johnson to step in. The pair often follow up with clients wherever they are, constantly talking to them on the phone or taking them places. They often try to be compassionate and show up consistently.

“We can get annoying,” Asfour joked.

In more intensive incidents, when criminal behavior occurs, the team will get involved with the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office and the county’s field crisis team to get them into a treatment plan. Sometimes criminal action is handled simultaneously by the police department, while other times it takes multiple visits and de-escalation. Johnson said he had clients who have gotten support and housing and thanked them for never giving up on them, a rewarding experience.

“We’ve had many experiences when you don’t give up, and suddenly there’s that moment where the lightbulb turns on, and they say they are ready to get help,” Johnson said.

A day typically goes from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., although it can often go as late as 7 p.m. They typically try to get any paperwork done in the morning before going on calls, with constant appointments all day after. They often go downtown, but they also go to all parts of San Mateo, like under freeway underpasses and near bridges. They can also be creative in helping clients, like when they got one treatment outside of the county because that’s what they wanted after trying options here. The department said since they started six months ago, the team has greatly reduced the number of nonviolent homelessness calls for service answered by police officers, leaving them more time to focus on calls that require enforcement.

San Mateo Police Chief Ed Barberini said the program has been helpful in ensuring downtown enforcement units have more time and resources to deal with issues beyond homelessness. Valuable time spent helping people who are homeless get to appointments or get help is now used to work with businesses on other issues.

“We wanted to take a more universal approach to serve our downtown, and this allows our officers to be more involved in other issues besides homelessness,” Barberini said.

Barberini said the program has been successful in helping a vulnerable community and ensuring the department is receiving fewer complaints and calls regarding homeless-related issues from businesses and merchants downtown.

“Every time I go out and talk to folks in the community, there is a notable difference and seeing fewer of the issues we used to see,” Barberini said.

Curtis Driscoll Daily Journal staff  (650) 344-5200 ext. 102

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