A Day of HOPE

Officer Victor Cass

Since last September, I have volunteered at LAMP, at 7th and Stanford. The members are living with severe mental illness, LAMP is a nonprofit organization that seeks to end homelessness, improves health, and build self-sufficiency among men and women. The people I sit with have faced challenges that with no support would lead to a life on the street, open to violence, hunger, and major health issues.

In the city east of Los Angeles, we have Officer Victor Cass reaching out and expanding HOPE to include sheltering the homeless by bringing together the Pasadena Police Department, Union Station Homeless Services and the Armory Center for the Arts.

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"Have You Had Your Mental Health Break Today?"

Officer Victor Cass of the Pasadena Police Department began his career as an advertising art director in New York before returning to Pasadena to follow his path as a law enforcement officer. Amongst his awards was a citation for his role in the heroic CPR life-saving of a three year old drowning victim. Officer Cass is the Chairman of the Pasadena Police Department Homeless Outreach-Psychiatric Evaluation (HOPE) Team.

"The purpose of the Pasadena Police and Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health's Homeless Outreach-Psychiatric Evaluation (HOPE) team is to provide effective, collaborative, and compassionate mental health and law enforcement emergency response to those in need of mental health, housing, and related social services." - HOPE

This May 14th, he will lead the first Mental Health Day, an event geared towards raising awareness of the challenges facing community members with mental health issues. The weeklong awareness program is sponsored by NAMI-SGV. The following is a short interview with Officer Cass.

What does Pasadena do differently than Los Angeles in its treatment of the homeless in need of mental health services?

I think that the main thing Pasadena does differently than Los Angeles, is that I think we care differently here. I think there are forces in LA that treat homelessness and mental illness as a temporary nuisance, as a disease, that can be cured, or pushed away somewhere else (like to Pasadena), instead of as a constant state of the human condition. There will always be homelessness and mental illness. We're talking about societal challenges that are mentioned in the Bible! So it's not going away anytime soon.

We recognize that people that are homeless and mentally ill are going to be in Pasadena. They're going to come to Pasadena for a variety of reasons, including two main ones that are not universally accepted yet by the powers that be, namely, that they feel safer in Pasadena, and that it's prettier in Pasadena. We get this straight from our target population. It's not, as is widely thought, because we have so many services. Most of them do not use our services to change their condition of being homeless. Homeless people and those struggling with mental illness are going to be where they want to be. If they wanted to be somewhere else, they would go there.

In Pasadena, we recognize the need to make available and provide services, even if they are not used on a vast scale. This is not just for our target populations, but also for the community's benefit. There are over 1,200 homeless people in Pasadena, a great majority of them who have one mental illness or another. You're not going to drive down the street and see 1,200 homeless people in Pasadena, and that's because we do a good job at providing different types of services, that are used by different folks at different times. Our service provider partners help to keep people stable, help them get their medications, provide therapy, food, shelter, and a host of other services, that can only be good for the community as a whole.

Why is HOPE unique in its police officer - civilian response? Is this a model that other cities adopting?

Even in the police department, in the unit that I'm part of, the HOPE Team, we're first responders with specialized training, who bring a more compassionate approach to helping our affected populations. People trust us, they know us, they know where to find us, and often call us directly for assistance. It's our job to arrive first on scene, sometimes in potentially violent and/or volatile situations, diffuse the crisis, and get the folks involved the best possible treatment and assistance. There have been instances where suicidal persons are told by the police dispatchers that the HOPE Team is on its way, and the person says: "Oh, I know them. They helped me in the past," and they de-escalate. There aren't many law enforcement agencies that can claim a unit like the HOPE Team.

The HOPE Team is unique in that we are a partnership between the police department and the LA County Department of Mental Health. A sworn cop and a civilian mental health clinician whose job it is to help people in crisis. We're one of the few police agencies that operate this type of cop-civilian mental health crisis team, and it really makes a difference when you're dealing with at-risk populations who often have a mistrust of the police. We don't arrest people. We build bridges and rapport, and we save lives daily. Other cities from around the country are starting to adopt this model, and we have often fielded phone calls from police departments around the country asking us how it's done.

On your off time, when you do have it, what do you do?
There's a lot of danger in my day job, so I'm not one of those 9-to-5-ers who need to go skydiving or mountain climbing for their adrenaline rushes. When I'm off-duty, I like to spend time with my 9-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, or I like to relax at Starbucks and read a book or laptop. I'm into genealogy and I'm obsessed by ancestry.com right now.

When: May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States. This event will be a week-long living "awareness" campaign, starting Sunday, May 8, 2011, and concluding with the event in the Playhouse District (Vromans and the Laemmle's Playhouse 7 Theater), Saturday, May 14, 2011, at 10:00 AM, which will include a slate of speakers, authors signing books related to mental health, filmmakers showing (and discussing) their short mental-health-related films, and informational tables from a wide array of Pasadena area service providers.

Image: Officer Victor Cass

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