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Elm City COMPASS, a New Haven crisis response program, expands

John Labieniec, Coordinator for the COMPASS project
Shanaé Harte
Connecticut Public
"We're trying to make a difference in people that are experiencing a certain crisis," said John Labieniec, Coordinator for the COMPASS project, while speaking in New Haven July 19, 2023.

After the murder of George Floyd in 2020, New Haven city officials discussed ways to further public safety in the city. These conversations lead to COMPASS (Compassionate Allies Serving our Streets) — a crisis response team that complements police, fire and emergency medical services (EMS) dispatches.

The program was launched in November 2022, and to date has responded to more than 500 calls.

Mayor Justin Elicker, along with other city officials, recently met at Kimberly Triangle to announce the program’s expansion.

One of the big changes is the way the team will respond to calls, Elicker said.

“So, phase one police or fire would respond first, and then the police or fire representatives would call in Elm City COMPASS if they assessed that it was appropriate,” Elicker said. “Now, when people call 911, the person answering the phone will make an assessment of whether they can send Elm City COMPASS directly instead of police and fire.”

The team, who are not armed, responds to mental illness, substance abuse, and housing calls. However, the city has designed a way to ensure the team will be safe when responding to calls without armed officers, according to Carlos Sosa-Lombardo, director of the New Haven Department of Community Resilience.

“We want to make sure there's no emergency medical issues, no criminal issues, and no violence or threats of violence involved to send the team,” Sosa-Lombardo said.

During the program’s first phase, the team was available to city residents from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. all week. Now, COMPASS staff will respond to calls from 8 a.m. to midnight.

John Labieniec, coordinator for the COMPASS project, said he has done similar outreach in other positions, but says this program is special because the team follows up with the people they encounter during a call.

“It's really the meat and potatoes of helping to resolve the crisis and not just put a bandaid on it,” Labienic said. “There's a connection that can happen and the purpose of it is to try to connect them to the right services.”

He says this program is not a solution to homelessness or addiction. The team often deals with resistance from people they try to help, and COMPASS can only provide support people are willing to receive.

“We're trying to make a difference in people that are experiencing a certain crisis and to give them the resources and support they need or to plant a seed that we're here to help when they're ready,” Labieniec said.

The team is often able to provide crisis beds or help for housing-insecure people, but they need more beds and trauma-informed programs to help further the work COMPASS is doing, he said.

“Not everybody can manage in permanent housing. Not everybody is gonna go to detox and be cured or go to a shelter and miraculously their problems are gonna get better. It's actually just the tip of the iceberg,” Labienic said.

This new phase of the program will run until July 1, 2024, when a new extension of the program is scheduled to be implemented.

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