Toronto city council has approved the framework for a multi-year pilot project that will see the creation of a mobile crisis assistance intervention service in multiple parts of the city.
On Tuesday after an hours-long discussion, council voted to establish services in the higher call volume areas of northwest Toronto, Scarborough and downtown Toronto as well as a dedicated program for Toronto’s Indigenous community. There was also a direction to staff to consider adding another pilot service.
The programs will be made up of health-care providers and non-profit organizations that specialize in mental health and substance use and staff said teams will specialize in crisis intervention and deescalation.
Currently, the estimated annual cost for the pilot services is between $7.2 and $7.9 million. However, there was a request for staff to work with the Toronto police chief and the Toronto Police Services Board on the “potential reallocation of funds” from the service’s budget to ensure the costs of the pilot “will not result in new financial burden” to residents.
As part of the motion, Council also voted to ask for a review of the Toronto Police Service’s 911 operations centre and to examine the possibility of moving it outside of a building operated by the service.
They also asked for a report on having the intervention service work with those who are homeless and youth who are “engaged in non-criminal, non-violent activities” similar to the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon as well as providing assistance by working with people to refer them to services such as supportive housing, affordable housing, emergency shelter services, mental health services and addiction recovery programs, if needed.
The initial pilot project proposal was first introduced as part of a suite of police reform measures in mid-2020.
As protests related to anti-Black racism and the Black Lives Matter movement have grown in recent months, along with more instances of individuals in mental health crisis dying after interactions with police, the push by advocates for emergency mental health response services to be created and dispatched in place of officers grew.
The need for better assistance was also highlighted in a staff report that went to the City’s executive committee earlier in January.
“Underinvestment in mental health treatment over several decades has meant that more people with mental illness are not receiving the supports they need and are falling into distress, resulting in increased interactions with police, who have essentially become default first responders of the mental health-care system for those experiencing crisis,” staff wrote, noting there has been a 32.4 per cent increase in crisis calls over the past five years.
“However, using law enforcement to address health issues creates service barriers and risks for many Torontonians, particularly Indigenous, Black, and equity-deserving communities. Systemic discrimination in Toronto has negatively impacted how these communities experience community safety.”
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health has also been advocating for improved crisis care options instead of police services being the lead responders.