DENVER -- Every day that Janet van der Laak drives between car dealerships in her sales job, she keeps size 12 shoes, some clothes and a packed lunch -- a PB&J sandwich, fruit and a granola bar -- beside her in case she sees her 27-year-old son on the streets.
" 'Jito, come home," she always tells him, using a Spanish endearment. There he can have a bed and food, but her son, Matt Vinnola, rarely returns home. If he does, it is temporary. The streets are easier for him. Home can be too peaceful.
But the same streets that give Vinnola comfort are also unsafe for a man battling dual demons of drug use and chronic paranoid schizophrenia.
Police and criminal courts often intervene before Vinnola gets treatment or care. Since his first diagnosis of severe mental illness in 2014, Vinnola has collected a litany of charges from misdemeanors to felony trespassing and drug offenses. Over the past four years, Vinnola has been charged in four separate Colorado courts and arrested multiple times almost every month either for new offenses or on warrants for failing to appear in court.
But soon, he might encounter mental health professionals on the street instead of cops. Denver is one of at least eight cities considering an Oregon program called Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets to decriminalize and improve the treatment of people with severe mental illness -- while saving the city money. The 30-year-old CAHOOTS program diverts nonviolent, often mental health-related 911 calls to a medic and a mental health professional instead of law enforcement.
Denver police and community service providers visited Eugene, Ore., in May to shadow CAHOOTS teams. Denver police officials said they are considering the model as an option to push beyond their existing co-responder program that sends mental health professionals on about six 911 calls a day.
Over 8 million people struggle with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder in America, and an estimated 40% of people diagnosed with schizophrenia go untreated, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, a nonprofit focused on mental health. Individuals with those illnesses often lose the ability to realize their deficits, creating a roadblock in accessing care and attending medical or court appointments.
Low-level offenses can land those with paranoia, hallucinations or a reduced ability to communicate, like Vinnola, in the criminal justice system. An estimated 383,000 people with severe mental illness are behind bars nationwide, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, while only a tenth of that number are in state hospitals.
Since the 2018 publication of a Wall Street Journal article about CAHOOTS, calls have poured into its organizers from officials in Los Angeles; Oakland, Calif.; New York; Vancouver, Wash.; and Portland, Ore., among others.
The Eugene CAHOOTS team shows up in work boots, jeans and T-shirts -- and without police officers -- in response to 911 calls diverted to the program.