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N.J., N.Y. transit systems doing outreach to help those with mental health disorders



N.J., N.Y. transit systems doing outreach to help those with mental health disorders

Before the Metropolitan Transportation Authority took a final vote on congestion pricing, it’s CEO detailed a program that addresses a major rider concern, helping homeless people in the subway system who have mental health disorders or are homeless.

The idea isn’t new. NJ Transit police have had an outreach program since before the COVID pandemic, which works with community social services to talk to homeless people in the system’s train stations and pairs them with social services to address their needs.

There are contrasts between two programs. NJ Transit’s program relies on a person voluntarily accepting social services. The MTA has a similar voluntarily component, except in extreme cases where a person deemed to be a danger to themselves or the public can be involuntarily sent for treatment.

Both mass transit systems could potentially see more riders once a proposed $15 congestion pricing fee is imposed on traffic entering Manhattan’s central business district south of 60th street. Barring a final federal approval or delay due to federal lawsuits, that program could start in mid-June after rates were approved on March 27.

A main concern of riders is people in the subway system behaving erratically, Jeremy Feigelson, MTA special counsel, said at the March 27 meeting. There are about over 2,000 unsheltered people sleeping in the subway system, many with an apparent bipolar disorder, he said.

The answer is SCOUT, or the Subway Co-response Outreach Team, that started last October and pairs clinicians trained in New York State mental health law who work with transit police to get people struggling with mental health disorders out into some form of treatment, said MTA CEO Janno Lieber.

“I think New Yorkers recognize the necessity to get people out of the public space and to be brought indoors and get treatment and on the way to better way of life,” he said.

SCOUT works with “our most challenging clients” and the goal is to get them the care they need, Feigelson said, adding, “co-response is seen as the way to go.” The first approach is to have a person voluntarily accept help.

“It’s about getting urgent aid, not see you next week,” Feigelson said. “Many are 63% voluntarily to shelter. It’s about reaching hard cases. Some don’t remember the last time they slept in a bed.”

NJ Transit police also emphasize also voluntary acceptance of help.

NJ Transit police chief Christopher Trucillo said the agency’s outreach service, which works with social service providers, contacted 380 unhoused individuals and 185 accepted some form of social service.

NJ Transit police also participate in the state Attorney General’s ARRIVE program, which partners police and mental health professionals, which interacted with 26 people in March, and eight voluntarily accepted mental health services, Trucillo said.

NJ Transit police work with Newark Mayor Ras Baraka’s Homeless Outreach Team which make wellness checks and talk to people homeless people in Newark Penn Station.

They offer transportation to a drop-in center where people can take a shower, wash their clothes, get a meal and use a computer to check emails and stay in touch with family or check for messages from service providers.

NJ Transit police also work with mental health screeners on eight-hour shifts, who are available to respond to any crisis call at Penn Station and conduct proactive outreach together throughout their entire shift.

Newark works with University Hospital’s crisis unit and the New Jersey Transit Police is working with Beth Israel’s crisis unit.

NJ Transit’s outreach program made headlines in August 2020 after the diligent work of Crisis Outreach Officer Sean Pfeifer helped reunite 61-year old Jose Lopez with his family in Bradley Beach, whom he hadn’t seen in 24 years. Pfeifer searched for Lopez’s family by cold calling two dozen numbers and leaving messages on each one.until he finally reached Lopez’s daughters.

Both transit agencies have specific jurisdictions, which determines who helps people. Newark Penn Station is NJ Transit’s territory, Penn Station New York is neither NJ T or the MTA’s. Neither is the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

Under SCOUT, the clinician is in charge and makes decisions with MTA police for safety and support, Feigelson said. A key element is the continuity of staffing, the clinicians and police officers know and trust each other, he said.

They also have the authority to involuntary removals a person who meets legal standards of having a mental health disorder and of being a danger to themselves and the public, he said. Of 90 people the program got to hospital or shelter in one day, 16 were involuntarily transported to mental health hospitals for evaluation, Feigelson said.

SCOUT clinicians stick with the client all the way through hospital and the MTA does real time tracking and progress checks, he said.

Riders can contact SCOUT using regular MTA customer service portals, but the program is selective and will not approach every homeless person, Lieber said.

“SCOUT addresses the hardest cases having mental health episodes. If the person doesn’t meet the standard and meet levels of need, the clinician walks away,” Feigelson said. “There are people who appear to be out of it. We talked to one person for 20 minutes and (learned) they were 100% there mentally.”

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Larry Higgs may be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on X @CommutingLarry

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