By Andy Sheehan

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — In Pittsburgh, there is a movement to help the police and lift some of the burden of public safety off their shoulders.

The city is in the process of creating a new bureau of social workers to assist police in responding to homeless people and others. But a new program is already leading the way.

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They are homeless people, people with addictions and the mentally ill, and oftentimes they end up on the wrong side of the law, creating safety concerns for themselves and others. When police are called, the options are few — primarily arrests and jail.

(Photo Credit: KDKA)

“We want to respond to situations that they may encounter that they may feel ill-equipt to handle or deal with adequately,” said Administrative Director Dan Palka.

Enter crews from the newly-created Homelessness and Urban Poverty Medicine Program at the Allegheny Health Network. The program is a mobile teams of outreach workers trained to help this vulnerable population. So far, police have gladly used their services.

As certified EMTs, they provide street medicine to take care of basic medical needs but also counseling and new options like emergency shelter, supportive housing and an array of social services.

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Police have begun calling them to intercede, but the crews aren’t waiting to be summoned. Crews are out building relationships with people, providing options other than the criminal justice system.

“People don’t need to go jail to get housing,” said outreach worker Ben Talik. “The jail’s not going to help with that piece of your life. People don’t need to go to the hospital if they’ve had a little too much to drink. We can bring our medical staff out to stay with you to make sure you’re safe and sober up a bit.”

The city of Pittsburgh is watching as it creates its own outreach agency, the Office of Community Health and Safety. Director Laura Drogowski is coordinating its development with police, fire and EMS, mindful of not stepping on toes and doing it right.

“We know as we scale, we need to build trust, we need to have safety protocols, we need to make sure communication is excellent,” said Drogowski.

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The Office of Health and Safety has begun hiring and training. But right now it’s a work in progress, finding the best way to help police and other first responders address the needs of these vulnerable people.