Three MH First volunteers pose for a photo wearing masks and holding up the fist of black power.
Members of both the Anti Police Terror Project and Mental Health First at a training session in East Oakland. (Left to right) Gabriel K, Carly Brannin, Ronnie B.. Members of the Sacramento Chapter of MH First met with thier Oakland counterparts for a training session. The Oakland chapter of the groups plan on take over from OPD’s handling of mental health response. (Pete Rosos/The Oaklandside)

Don’t call the cops on homeless people. This is a common refrain amongst advocates, and one that has grown louder over the past few months. But when you are witnessing someone in the midst of a mental health crisis, this is easier said than done. Since most cities do not have the resources to address the specific needs of people in crisis, the choices are daunting: intervene yourself, call 911, or do nothing at all.

The Anti Police Terror Project (APTP) has stepped up to change that. On August 28, they launched Mental Health First Oakland: a hotline to call if you are experiencing a mental health crisis, or witnessing someone else who is struggling. The hotline is not just for unhoused people—anyone who needs support is invited to call. The number is (510) 999-9MH1. (That’s the same as: 510-999-9641.) 

The hotline is staffed by a group of volunteers made up of doctors, nurses, mental health professionals, and community members. If you call, a volunteer will answer the phone and talk you through what’s happening using a conversational style. Are you safe? What kind of environment are you in? Are there police on the scene? The volunteer will also assess your physical health to determine whether a condition like hunger, dehydration, or low blood sugar is masquerading as a bigger problem. Callers will not be interrogated about their name, age, or race. Cat Brooks—one of the founders of APTP—says this can put people in crisis more on edge.

Do you need mental health support?
Call: (510) 999-9MH1
Or get in touch on social media: @MHFirstOak 

Once the volunteer understands the basics of the situation, they will determine what should happen next. They may make a safety and mental health plan with the caller, discussing situation-appropriate changes that can be made, as well as setting a time for M.H. First to call back and follow up. If the circumstances are more urgent, they may send out a dispatch team: a mental health professional, an EMT or RN, and a security liaison. Each of these individuals has a specific job: the EMT or RN will check vitals, the mental health professional will work with the individual in distress, and the security liaison will manage the presence of community members and law enforcement. In these situations, M.H. First may also draw on partnerships with local clinics and hospitals.

If calling 911 is the only option, they will dispatch a security liaison to ensure the person in need is not criminalized, and that they get the help they need. (Due to COVID-19, M.H. First is not currently sending out dispatch teams. They will initiate this process once it is safe for their volunteers.) 

The M.H. First Oakland hotline is currently open on Friday and Saturday nights from 8:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m., but you can call 24/7. If you need to call during off hours, they encourage you to leave a voicemail including your phone number or another way to reach you. You can also reach out for help on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook at @MHFirstOak. 

“If someone sees someone in crisis and they don’t want to call the cops, they should call us. If they see cops responding to someone in crisis, they should call us,” says Brooks. “We really want to focus on time, de-escalation, compassion, and care. That may mean the volunteer is on the phone with someone for hours, and that’s okay. Law enforcement wants to deal with these situations ASAP, which usually requires force or incarceration.” 

A black and white photograph of a mother holding her child with text superimposed on the photo that says "we cannot police our way out of a mental health crisis."
(Courtesy of MH First and the Anti Police-Terror Project)

Meeting mental health crises with force has deadly consequences. According to a study by the Ruderman Foundation, half of people who are killed by police have a disability, and most of those people are living with mental illness. Other studies have shown that people living with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement than others who are approached. Furthermore, mobile crisis services have proven to be more cost effective than police response. As noted in a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), on average, mobile crisis services cost 23 percent less per case, and can reduce the costs associated with inpatient hospitalization by about 79 percent within six months after the crisis occurs. 

Brooks says M.H. First is one example of how communities can step in as an alternative to policing. 

“Cops are trained to force compliance, to stir a scene, and deal with an issue with as much force as possible. Let’s take Steven Taylor in San Leandro,” Brooks says, referring to the 33-year-old Black man who was killed by police in April in the midst of a mental health crisis at a Walmart. “They could have walked into that Walmart, cleared it, let that man do whatever he needed to do in that moment. The moment is not going to last forever. Time, distance, de-escalation. Not badges, guns, or tasers.” 

APTP wants to challenge the ever-growing responsibilities of police, who effectively serve as parents, teachers, social workers. Brooks believes that directing funds away from law enforcement and into alternative models would make communities safer. “Let’s let cops deal with real murder and rape, and let the community care for each other,” she says. 

M.H. First Oakland is not APTP’s first foray into community care. Back in January, they launched M.H. First Sacramento, and the hotline has become widely used. Brooks says this is an indicator of the program’s necessity: they didn’t have a budget for marketing or communications, so their only outreach was through flyers and word of mouth. Now, the City of Sacramento has initiated conversations with APTP about what a partnership might look like. 

APTP first conceived of M.H. First five years ago. It was a natural extension of the rapid response work they were already doing: reaching out to the families of those who were murdered by police and offering support; sitting with friends and loved ones in moments of distress. But organizers wanted to figure out a way to get ahead of the problem, responding before a tragedy occurs. That’s where the idea for M.H. First came from. The idea has only become more relevant in recent months, since the murder of George Floyd has galvanized the movement to abolish the police. 

Mental Health First Program Coordinator Asantewaa Boikin wears a mask and a green shirt that says "MH First, community first response)
Mental Health First Program Coordinator Asantewaa Boikin during a meeting of both the Oakland and Sacramento chapters of the organization. Members of the Sacramento Chapter met with their Oakland counterparts for a training session. The Oakland chapter of the groups plan on take over from OPD’s handling of mental health response. (Pete Rosos/The Oaklandside)

“Because of this movement moment, people are no longer laughing at us,” Brooks says. “Thank god we were prepared to embrace this moment in a way we may not already have been.” 

M.H. First Oakland is currently working with around 30 volunteers. According to Daniela Kantorová, a clinical psychologist who is one of the coordinators for the program, hundreds have already expressed interest in receiving volunteer training. New volunteers will be trained gradually, and with time they may be able expand their hours. Kantorová and Brooks both said they want unhoused people to be part of their volunteer base. 

“We need to be open to learning, because the unhoused community are experts on their own lives,” Kantorová says. 

Volunteers work in shifts and are responsible for being available to answer the phone or be dispatched during their allotted time. To get involved, check out the M.H. First Oakland page on the APTP website, here

CORRECTION: The print version of this article states that the hotline’s hours are Friday and Saturday from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. In fact, the hours are Friday and Saturday nights from 8:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m. This digital version of the article has been corrected to reflect the accurate hours.

Alastair Boone is the Director of Street Spirit.