The City of Flagstaff and Flagstaff Police Department are aiming to reduce the number of arrests related to intoxication, mental health and petty crimes by implementing an alternate response program run by a social service agency, but the effort has several local service providers concerned over the city’s process for developing the proposal and the direction they are taking.
And some local service providers say the city appears to be moving forward without a clear idea of what they want.
Likewise, providers say the city is moving forward without having consulted the critical stakeholders being impacted, or those currently on the ground doing social service work with unsheltered populations who appear to be the program’s main targets.
Earlier this month, the city released a request for proposals to social service agencies related to the proposed alternate response. The request asked agencies to propose a program that would create either a new brick and mortar care center, a mobile response unit, or both.
The city’s request outlined that a new care center should include an area where law enforcement or firefighters could take community members who may be intoxicated or suffering from mental health problems, many of whom may be unsheltered, to receive care.
The center would also need to provide emergency, daytime and permanent housing.
Flagstaff Police Department spokesperson Odis Brockman said the new program would give the department the ability to put their officers to better use, reducing the number of times officers are responding to petty crimes and better focusing their resources.
“This in essence sends the right resources at the right time, for the right reasons,” Brockman said.
According to the city's request, last year alone the department responded to 2,491 mental health calls and 2,828 low-priority alcohol calls. At the same time, the Flagstaff Fire Department responded to 2,613 public intoxicant calls and provided 383 behavioral health responses.
Those taken to the center could then complete eight hours of public service in lieu of a trip through the justice system.
The request also states that programming and services should be designed in a culturally sensitive way, specifically toward Native American cultures, as many of those targeted by the program could be Indigenous.
But while the program references the need for culturally sensitive programing, service providers alleged the city didn’t consult either local providers or Native American groups.
Tallerita Rogers, the director of community development with Native Americans for Community Action, said the organization he's with submitted a proposal but added that the city’s request was flawed.
“It was clear that no Native-focused organization or agency was invited to the table to provide the input or to talk about the scope of work before the [request] was written,” Rogers said. “I think that that just speaks to that colonial paternalistic type of attitude that government has traditionally had with Indigenous populations.”
Jonathan Yellowhair, also with NACA, agreed, saying that when it comes to this kind of effort, it is important that as many voices are heard as possible -- especially those who will be directly impacted.
“People wouldn’t be so bent out of shape about it if it wasn't important, but the thing is, it's important to everybody, and the people who it is the most important to, their voices are not being heard,” Yellowhair said.
Rogers pointed at the potential for mandatory community service hours for community members who may be unsheltered and dealing with mental health issues or substance abuse and are brought to the facility.
“We just think that there's a better humanistic and community-based approach in terms of addressing that concern,” Rogers said.
Director of Flagstaff Shelter Services Ross Altenbaugh agreed and said across the country experts generally consider a housing-first model as the best and most effective way to improve peoples lives.
On top of that, Altenbaugh said the request released by the city is light on details and agencies were given far too little time -- only four weeks -- to come up with proposals.
Altenbaugh said the city’s request is vague at best when it comes to the funding available for the project. All the while, the project could include developing an entirely new shelter building with a detox center.
And Altenbaugh pointed out that the city doesn’t actually provide much funding for existing social services as it is.
The city has directed one-time funds to local shelters and outreach efforts such as Catholic Charities or Front Door, but there has been no annual funding for such services.
And again, Altenbaugh critiqued the way the request was seemingly drawn up without the involvement of groups working in these areas right now.
“We have no idea how much money it's going to cost, or who it's going to serve, or how many people we need to serve, but put together a program and in four weeks,” Altenbaugh said, describing the city’s request. “I just think that at the end of the day, it's setting our community up for failure. I mean, you can't ask a community to build a building to have detox when you have, first of all, no idea how much detox costs.”