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City's mental health program wants to stay separate from street enforcement

The STAR advisory committee asks the city to keep the mental health program separate from Denver’s new Street Enforcement Team citing people for urban camping.

DENVER — Denver’s STAR Program (Support Team Assisted Response) has achieved something difficult: both the city government and community organizations said it’s working.

STAR sends a paramedic and a mental health worker to certain 911 calls instead of the police. Team members carry supplies to help people experiencing mental health challenges and work to connect them with resources.

Now those same community organizations that championed the STAR Program are fighting to keep it distant from Denver's newest approach to enforce the city's urban camping ban.

"This marks the second year of STAR being in full effect in the city and county of Denver," said Alexander Landou with the Denver Justice Project. "When STAR was designed, it was designed to protect a very vulnerable population."

Landou sits on the STAR Community Advisory Committee. He recently joined the other members of the advisory committee in a vote to ask the city to keep STAR completely separate from Denver’s new Street Enforcement Team or SET.

The SET deputizes civilians with the power to issue citations to people who camp on city streets. SET members have trained with STAR team members for months and often call STAR to assist on calls.

"It does serious damage to the integrity of the program and the people who have pioneered this effort and the simple recipients of the services if we start to incorporate levels of law enforcement," said Landou. 

Vinnie Cervantes also sits on the STAR community advisory committee as the director of the Denver Alliance for Street Health Response. He said that while STAR provides help and resources, SET criminalizes homelessness.

"I think where STAR is an answer and a really transformative option for the issues that happen in our city, SET is an extension of an already existing, awful approach to homelessness and public health and safety in general," said Cervantes. "I definitely don’t agree that the programs are complimentary. I think they’re contradictory."

The SET has already been active in Denver for several months, patrolling areas with homeless encampments. So far, they’ve only given out warnings and no fines. That’s because supply chain issues have prevented the team from getting their uniforms and the city council won’t let them write tickets unless they’re wearing their uniforms.

"They certainly work in close coordination with one another. As you can imagine, based on the missions that each one of them has, they in my view are complementary services," said Jeff Holliday, a deputy executive director at the Denver Department of Public Safety.

Before Holliday helped launch the SET team, he worked at the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment to help launch the STAR program. He said both can coexist and both are needed to solve the problem. 

"I would argue that they both serve a similar purpose in that regard in that they free up law enforcement to focus on more serious crimes," said Holliday. "It’s not a single solution or tool in the toolbox that can fix all of those or address all of those concerns. There are actually multiple tools that are required."



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