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The St. Paul Fire Department is poised to launch an alternative 911 response program that would pair emergency medical technicians with nonprofit advocates who can help connect residents with social services.

About 12% of the department's calls this year have involved people experiencing homelessness, Deputy Chief Steven Sampson said in a presentation to the City Council last week. In addition to addressing medical needs, responders from the planned Community Advocacy Response (CARE) Team would be dispatched to help find shelter, distribute winter clothing or provide other resources to vulnerable populations.

The department is on track to respond to 55,000 calls in 2021, up from last year's record 50,000. The CARE pilot will aim to connect unsheltered residents with responders who are better equipped to lend support, while also reserving ambulances for more serious medical calls, Chief Butch Inks said.

"This, in a nutshell, is providing the right resource for the right call," he said.

The department is seeking $600,000 from the city's 2022 general fund to complement a grant from the Pohlad Family Foundation that would bring the program's total budget to about $900,000 next year. The council is slated to vote on the 2022 budget Dec. 8.

That money would fund a CARE Team coordinator position housed in the fire department, as well as social workers or other advocates contracted from local groups such as Catholic Charities, Listening House, Safe Space Shelter and Union Gospel Mission, Sampson said.

St. Paul and Ramsey County teamed up earlier this year to reduce the number of people living in the outdoor encampments that grew in the early days of the pandemic, as those at risk suddenly lost access to many public spaces during the statewide shutdown.

But the cold weather typically causes unsheltered residents to congregate closer to downtown St. Paul, where many shelters are located, Sampson said.

"Our responders go, and they do so passionately, but they don't have the tools in their bag to necessarily prevent that same individual from calling us again two days later," Sampson said. "We have to be able to get them a different service and really figure out what the underlying problem is."

The CARE Team could also respond to other types of non-urgent medical calls from repeat addresses, such as those involving unsupported elderly residents, he said.

The proposal, which was well-received by the council, aligns with the "community-first" public safety agenda that was a pillar of Mayor Melvin Carter's first term. Under Carter's charge, a task force examined alternate ways to respond to low-priority 911 calls and issued a slate of recommendations last spring.

There have been other recent local efforts to reimagine public safety systems. Ramsey County is discussing a plan that would dispatch social service workers to certain 911 calls, and the St. Paul Fire Department already has three Basic Life Support units created in 2019 to respond to minor medical calls.

"I love the name itself," Council Member Nelsie Yang said of the CARE proposal, "because I feel that doing this work from a care perspective is truly what it takes to be able to resolve to support folks who are struggling the most in our communities."