Alameda County-based mental health care provider Bonita House. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

The city’s new contracted Specialized Care Unit, a mental health response program now three years in the making, is still looking for staff to populate its teams.

At a Zoom forum on Wednesday, city officials and workers from Bonita House, which will run the unit, predicted it would start taking calls “this summer,” the same as officials had predicted in February.

The city approved $4.5 million for the unit in December. Nearly all that number — $4.25 million — comes through the American Rescue Plan Act Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds program, according to city records. The balance comes from the city’s “one-time grant fund.”

In February, the city obtained another $1 million in grant funding from the state’s Crisis Care Mobile Units program to pay for vehicles, equipment, training and other costs, according to state records.

The contract, which began Jan. 1, ends June 30, 2025, but in March, Samantha Russell, the director of crisis services for Bonita House, said those funds were likely only to keep the unit running for 18 months.

Neither Bonita House nor city officials have said if the program has secured any additional funding.

The plan is for three teams of three workers each to be “roving the city of Berkeley waiting for calls” in their vans, Russell said Wednesday.

Katherine Hawn, a special projects coordinator at the city’s Health, Housing and Community Services Department, said her office was working with the city’s Public Works Department to bring three or four transit vans, all with equipment for wheelchair access, to the new unit. They will not have lights or sirens but may have “some kind of decal,” she said.

Each team will comprise a behavioral health clinician, a peer support specialist and an EMT. Their response time should be 20 minutes anywhere in the city, Russell said.

Russell said Bonita House had “a few clinicians in the pipeline for the program, (and) interviewed peer support specialists,” but had not yet interviewed any EMTs for the unit.

The vans will be housed and maintained at a facility “on the border of Berkeley” which will also house the unit’s offices, Russell said. Information as to which which border she meant was not immediately available.

As of Friday the only jobs specific to the unit posted on Bonita House’s employment page were for a mobile peer support specialist at $23.85-$28.85 an hour and a clinical program manager at an annual salary of $115,000-$120,000.

Once hired, team members will attend a “training academy” on topics including naloxone use and how and when patients may require psychiatric hospitalization, commonly known as “5150” holds.

The idea for the unit first arose in June 2020, immediately after the murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer. The intention was to shift “non-criminal” calls for service from city police to a “network of crisis responders,” according to a City Council item at the time.

Bonita House and the health office, along with police and fire officials, are still hammering out the details on how precisely to transport patients, when to loop in other first responders and how residents can call the unit in the first place.

Part of the point of the unit is to obviate police response to certain mental health calls, but as of now, all emergency dispatch in Berkeley runs through the dispatch center at police headquarters.

Hawn said the working group had not yet landed on a contact number for the unit. A dedicated, conventional 10-digit telephone number is one possibility, but “sometimes memorizing 10-digit phone numbers is hard,” she said.

Russell referred questions on the unit’s headquarters, funding and staffing to the city. Officials with HHCS and spokespeople for the city did not immediately respond to inquiries.

Alex N. Gecan joined Berkeleyside in 2023 as a senior reporter covering public safety. He has covered criminal justice, courts and breaking and local news for The Middletown Press, Stamford Advocate and...