The Be Well program supports police response to mental health crisis calls in Southern California.

By Hanna Lykke
The Orange County Register

ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. – A police radio dispatched partners – but there were no sirens, flashing lights, guns or handcuffs.

They pulled up in an electric blue van with “Hope HAPPENS HERE” written on the side, this time near the McDonald’s on Westminster Avenue in Garden Grove.

Garden Grove Cpl.  Luis Ramirez answers a call with the Be Well team on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022. Crisis intervention specialists Victor Reyes and Victoria Tran offer mental health support, services and follow-up.

Garden Grove Cpl. Luis Ramirez answers a call with the Be Well team on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022. Crisis intervention specialists Victor Reyes and Victoria Tran offer mental health support, services and follow-up. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Half a dozen homeless people stood, sat or lay on the front lawn of the Coventry Meadows Apartments. A year ago, officials would take the call, typically asking to remove the collection. Instead, mental health crisis specialists Victoria Tran, also an EMT, and Victor Reyes approached the group armed with Kirkland granola bars and water.

“Have you heard of Be Well before?” Tran asked, and then the pair asked if anyone needed anything besides bars and water, such as being directed to an on-site shelter via an iPad (no), with half of the homeless ending up walking , and the Be Well van drives away Well, I soon headed to a domestic dispute call.

Be Well is part of a national wave, putting mental health experts on calls that cops used to always take, reducing the chance of tension-filled confrontations that can turn deadly, connecting experts with those who might need them, and allowing officers to focus more on crime-related dispatches.

Be Well, like other similar programs, is modeled after CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets), which started in Eugene, Oregon, in 1989. Last year, having Be Well cost Garden Grove about 1.4 million dollars, with a mobile team responding to nearly 2,900 calls for mental health, domestic disputes or homelessness, or for cuts and scrapes, performing CPR and administering Narcan to reverse opiate overdoses.

“We are extremely pleased to partner with Be Well — they have been a wonderful resource for our police department and our community,” said Assistant City Manager Lisa Kim.

First launched in Orange County in August 2021 in Huntington Beach, Be Well mobile units now serve Anaheim, Irvine and Newport Beach in addition to Garden Grove. Typically, the mobile team consists of two mental health professionals dressed in nondescript polo shirts and slacks. The only sign of their official business apart from the van is the Be Well logo on the shirt and the radio clipped to the lapel.

One team is on duty in Garden Grove. Often more than one shift is worked per day.

“When they see us, it’s a refreshing perspective because they don’t see law enforcement right away,” Tran said. “They see people in a blue van asking them if they’re OK.”

For people under the influence, Be Well offers rides to its 60,000-square-foot facility off South Anita Drive near UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange.

This facility is the epicenter of the Be Well NGO and has received funding from Kaiser Permanente and Providence St. Joseph Health, among others. Here, Orange County residents can get mental health care and substance abuse treatment regardless of their insurance status. Among the amenities: There is a sober house where one can stay until the intoxication stops.

The three-story “campus,” as Be Well calls it, looks somewhat like a tony hotel. The cool interior space is filled with earthy tones, wooden floors and chic oblong lamps. In the heart of the complex there is a small garden, a gym and a terrace with a patio. The corridors are lined with patient artwork; succulents abound. Inspirational slogans similar to those on the Be Well van line several walls.

“The care happens here,” reads one.

It was here that Mission Viejo resident Scott Anderson got sober after a decline in his mental health that led to alcoholism. The pandemic cost Anderson his restaurant job and put people at a distance; as COVID-19 raged, he tried outpatient programs and hospital stays, but nothing stuck.

“I was in a do-or-die situation where I needed help,” the Cal State Fullerton student said.

Faced with an ultimatum to “get sober or move out” of his home, Anderson recalled, he entered Be Well’s withdrawal management program, staying 11 days at Orange’s detox facility to deal with the initial symptoms of abstinence. Then a longer-stay room opened up, and Anderson spent another 90 days there, leaving in August 2021 — Be Well calls it “graduation.”

“If it wasn’t for Be Well, I don’t know where I’d be right now,” said the 25-year-old.

Anderson stayed through college and is now employed full-time with Be Well. Among his duties: He runs a weekly Be Well alumni group.

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Be Well vans offer an amnesty box for those wishing to give up drugs without punishment and transport to the Be Well campus or to hospitals or social services.

A teenager was once taken to a bean shop for team members to listen to her after an explosive family argument. She felt understood and cared for. Meanwhile, another of Buddy’s team has a good chat with the teenager’s family.

A former combat medic in Iraq for the US Army, Tam Nguyen said he and other members of the Be Well team get to spend a lot of time with those in need. They offer follow-up, a case manager and referral to other services.

When called, Be Well’s Garden Grove teams are in constant contact with the police. They have access to the police and fire department broadcasts. Dispatchers judge whether only police should be moving, or Be Well, or both.

“We respond to calls where the police usually show up with guns and body armor,” Nguyen said. “So it’s good to tell the dispatcher where we are. We can have an employee answer with us at the same time.”

On some calls, officers will instruct the Be Well team to remain on standby so they can ensure all weapons are removed from the scene, Nguyen said.

After the homeless call, Tran and Reyes got back into the blue van and rolled several miles to a one-story house on a tree-lined street. A woman’s ex-partner had apparently turned up and was shouting abuse at her. He had left when Be Well stopped.

Corporal Luis Ramirez was already there. He asked Reyes and Tran questions for advice on his response.

“Please (be sane) for advice because I’m not a psychologist or a doctor,” the officer said later. “They know more about it than we do.

“I’m going to have to go to the criminal side of things, which is usually to put someone in jail,” Ramirez said. “If there’s no crime involved, then we just have to see if the family can work it out.”

After Ramirez said goodbye to the woman and her children to go on another call, Be Well lingered. For 30 minutes, Reyes and Tran offered the woman’s young children fidget spinners, talked about elementary school and explained what resources could help the family.

Sergeant Geoffrey Brown would later say that he was “extremely impressed” with Be Well.

“There’s been no talk of ending the partnership — everything that’s come from him has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Sgt.

For one thing, Be Well gives employees more time for other conversations.

“It’s really freed up our employees who might spend hours on a service call that Be Well can handle,” Brown said. “This allows our officers to deal with crimes against mental health calls that are not necessarily our specialty. We don’t have all the mental health resources that Be Well has access to.’

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Be Well’s original contract with the city of Garden Grove, much of which is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, was set to expire in December. But at the Oct. 25 City Council meeting, the commission voted unanimously to renew the contract through June 30, 2023, for an additional $450,000.

On average, Garden Grove police responded to more than 3,000 mental health-related calls a year, the assistant city manager said in a report, and more than 11,400 calls about homelessness that could be related to mental illness.

Be Well answers 57 percent of Be Well’s calls, which average 30 minutes, without an officer — cops can now better respond to “critical emergency calls,” Kim said.

Back on the streets of Garden Grove, as Tran and Reyes’ time with the woman and her children was running out, the radio buzzed again.

Tran and Reyes got back into the blue van and drove off.

NEXT: The benefits of hiring social workers at your law enforcement agency

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