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City's Office Of Community Health and Safety hopes to be fully operational by end of year

90.5 WESA

It's been over a year since protests last summer called for reforms like reducing the use of police to handle mental health crises. And the Pittsburgh department created to provide alternative approaches is a few months away from being fully operational.

Interest in that effort was rekindled this month after 54-year-old Jim Rogers, who is believed to have been homeless, died after being Tased by police. Councilor Deb Gross, who represents the Bloomfield neighborhood where the incident occurred, has asked whether the incident could have been de-escalated by social workers.

Laura Drogowski manages the Office of Community Health and Safety, which was created to address such crises. She said she couldn't comment on the Rogers situation. But she said the office was still ramping up its efforts.

"We don't have all of the infrastructure in place to just stand right on top and just build," she said. "We have to get cars, and we have to get radios and all of these things that maybe we wouldn't have thought of until we were in the process of doing it."

The goal is for social workers to arrive on the scene to de-escalate the situation, getting a person access to the resources they need, and following up afterwards.

"We would see someone in a situation where they are houseless, and that would be the only offense — which is not an offense at all, rather a total systemic failing," Drogowski said. "We want people who know them to go out."

Mayor Bill Peduto joined with City Councilors Ricky Burgess and Daniel Lavelle to launch the effort, which is funded from the public safety budget. The office opened in January, and its first hires were made in the early summer. However, staff have not responded to 911 calls yet, because the city is still trying to hire social workers. It hopes to have six of them hired by December.

Right now, the office is doing safety training and maintaining a relationship with first responders, as well as partnering with Allegheny Health Network's Urban Poverty and Homelessness Program. The goal is for the city's office to directly respond to emergency calls, while AHN will partner with people who do outreach to homeless camps, and shelters to provide resources they may need, including medical assistance.

AHN's Office of Urban Poverty and Homelessness Program did not respond to requests for comment.

Drogowski said it's not clear how many calls the office can expect yet. But she said it would likely be "a very large number" every year. "It could be 3,000 – 5,000 engagements with people, that's a rough guess."

Handling such a caseload every day, she said would likely require 40 social workers.

"I think for us to be able to take on call volume and respond and partner, we're going to need more than six," she said.

Born and raised in Birmingham, Ala., Ariel finally made a “big move” 45 minutes down the interstate to the University of Alabama where she studied Journalism and International Studies. During her time in college she interned with Tuscaloosa News, a daily newspaper in her college town. After college, she got her first job back in her hometown with Birmingham Times, a weekly where she served as reporter and editor. Ariel made an even bigger move to Pittsburgh and joined the 90.5 WESA family as digital producer. She is adjusting to experiencing actual cold weather.
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