A 24/7, three-member Specialized Care Unit will begin operating this summer to offer a non-police response for anyone experiencing a mental health crisis in Berkeley, city officials said at a community meeting Thursday.

The SCU was born out of conversations following the May 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the nationwide protests against police racism and brutality that followed.

In Berkeley, that included calls to limit low-level police stops and create an independent group that could respond to mental health crises. Berkeley Mental Health currently oversee the Mobile Crisis Team that responds to these calls five days a week, and the in-person response involves a Berkeley police officer alongside mental health professionals. The SCU will not be armed and will eventually phase out the Mobile Crisis Team response, which currently includes police.

The City Council in December 2022 awarded a two-year $4.5 million contract to Bonita House, a longstanding mental health care provider in Alameda County, to design the program. The organization opened its first treatment center at 1410 Bonita Ave. in North Berkeley in 1971, where it remains.

At a virtual community meeting Thursday night, Bonita House presented a model to staff three professionals — a behavioral health specialist, a peer counselor with experience in mental health crises and someone with medical knowledge, like an emergency medical technician — in 10-hour shifts for a 24/7 mental health response.

Staffing and recruiting for about 18 total positions are ongoing, and the plan is to begin work this summer. Residents will eventually be able to call a non-911, 10-digit number to reach the SCU.

Lisa Warhuus, director of the city’s Health Housing and Community Services team who headed up the collaboration with Bonita House, said there are situations where the SCU may request a police response — like if there is any threat of violence to the response team, but the goal is to keep the team separate of city police and fire departments.

“We are working really hard to make the SCU a response on par with police and fire. We are not trying to create a secondary response system, and we are not trying to create something that defers to (them),” Warhuus said, explaining that there are plans for a separate physical dispatch site.

She said a police response that includes the SCU would be a “worst-case scenario,” but not out of the question. However, the city wants the SCU to be an independent entity that people trust to call in a crisis where they may not trust police.

Alameda County has documented problems providing mental health care

Berkeley residents have been asking for stronger mental health support services for years, especially for homeless residents who have fewer connections to hospitals or existing medical resources.

Participants at Thursday’s meetings said they could think of numerous situations over the past several years when a team like the SCU would have saved lives — both in cases of police brutality and systemic neglect for people with mental health problems in Alameda County, recently outlined in a 2021 report by the Department of Justice.

The county has the state’s highest rate of involuntary 72-hour psychiatric holds, known as 5150s, according to the health system. Individuals are sent to behavior health specialists instead of jail, but advocates say there’s a difference between avoiding incarceration and connecting those in need to a “continuum of care” and services.

Glenn Turner, a longtime Berkeley resident and business owner, said she needed the SCU when her late daughter was experiencing numerous 5150 holds before and after becoming unhoused on the streets of Berkeley and Oakland.

“This is exactly what I wish had existed when my daughter was still alive,” Turner said. “She died, unfortunately, at the age of 48, because of lack of treatment and inability to understand her illness.”

She raised questions about staffing the SCU and suggested family members and friends who have navigated through mental health crises could be trained as peer counselors to broaden the pool of available workers.

Leslie Berkler, executive director of the Women’s Drop-in Center on Acton Street in Southwest Berkeley, said she hopes the SCU will be a step toward a robust mental health services center in Berkeley, where one does not exist currently.

The primary mental health treatment center in Alameda County is the John George Psychiatric Hospital in San Leandro, which has been the subject of numerous complaints of mistreatment.

Berkler said people sometimes arrive in crisis at the Women’s Center, which has some counseling services, and it’s the “worst experience in the world” not to have someone to call for mental health support. She hopes the SCU team will help create connections between those in crisis and people who want to help.

“Community education is super important. I know in Berkeley nobody wants to be “Karen,” said Berkler, referring to a term commonly used when someone, specifically a white woman, uses her privilege against others, particularly people of color. “But people do not understand — when people are in distress — how to read it and what it means. I think frequently people are afraid when they don’t need to be afraid, and they otherize people when they shouldn’t.”

The SCU is designed as a pilot because of limited funding (there isn’t a sustained budget for the program beyond the Bonita House contract that ends in January 2025) and the developing nature of the model.

When it launches this summer, Warhuus said there will be numerous learning moments between the SCU and law enforcement, between SCU and the public and more. Before their resources and materials are fully established, they may also spend time building community relationships and doing neighborhood walks to meet residents.

Warhuus added that while homeless residents may be the most visible population in need of mental health services, the SCU team will be designed to support everyone in the city.

Correction: Berkeley Mental Health oversees the Mobile Crisis Response team, not Berkeley police.

Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...