Phoenix has money but not staff for program to help residents in crisis

By Christina Estes
Published: Tuesday, February 21, 2023 - 5:54pm
Updated: Wednesday, February 22, 2023 - 8:55am

Matthew Casey/ KJZZ
In June 2021, the Phoenix City Council approved $15 million to expand the Community Assistance Program but it's struggling to find case workers.

Phoenix is falling short in its plan to reach more unhoused people experiencing mental health and substance abuse problems.

In June 2021, the City Council approved $15 million to expand the Community Assistance Program, known as CAP, and create behavioral health units. They’re meant to be positioned in areas to best respond to people in crisis. Today, one of nine units is active.

Deputy City Manager Ginger Spencer told a council subcommittee the program has a hundred positions but only 30 are filled.

“We are now able to offer hiring incentives, referral incentives, as well as looking into retention incentives,” she said, “Starting in March, we’re going to have weekly recruitments so that we can fill those caseworker II and caseworker III positions. As far as timing, to get the program fully up and running it really depends on how quickly we are able to staff.”

A check of the city's job openings late Wednesday showed no such positions listed. A spokesperson for the city's human resources department said approximately 75 openings for Case Worker II and Case Worker III will be reposted by next week, and people who are interested can sign up on the city's website to receive email notifications when new jobs are posted. The salary range for Case Worker II is $40,976-$62,317  and the range for Case Worker III is $49,878-$76,107. 

Vice Mayor Yassamin Ansari complimented the program for improving the intersection of 51st Avenue and Baseline Road, which she described as a hotspot for mental health issues and fentanyl use.

“I was with some of the residents of the area this weekend and one of them said, there's been a 'marked' improvement in the intersection, so I think it just goes to show this type of intervention really does work and we need to ramp up these efforts," she said. 

Ansari asked if extra funding would help or if current funding will be sufficient once the program is fully staffed.

“I believe that with the $15 million that council approved for the CAP expansion as well as the $9 million that was approved through ARPRA funds, that as long as we can get our staffing up and running, we do have adequate resources to address the community needs,” Spencer said.

" ... as long as we can get our staffing up and running, we do have adequate resources to address the community needs."
— Ginger Spencer, deputy city manager

The $9 million reference relates to federal funds Phoenix received through the American Rescue Plan Act and used to contract with Mercy Care to provide physical and mental health screenings, counseling, treatment and case management. During Wednesday’s meeting, staff said Mercy Care has served 2,833 people and spent $2.3 million of its $9 million contract.

In February 2022, staff told the public safety subcommittee the plan was to house the city's behavioral health units in areas of high need, especially along Interstate 17. Currently, the only operating behavioral health unit is stationed at Third Street and Dunlap Avenue in Sunnyslope.

When the council expanded the community assistance program, the goal was to divert appropriate 911 calls from police and fire to trained caseworkers. Program administrator D.C. Ernst shared success stories where services were provided to a veteran with suicidal ideation, an unhoused person with a pet seeking shelter, and a person experiencing a mental health crisis.

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