Car 87 where are you? Families say Vancouver’s mental health emergency team is rarely available

Shirley Chan says she’s made about six emergency calls to 911 over the years, each time requesting Vancouver’s specialized Car 87 mental health team when her adult daughter was in crisis.

“I don’t usually call 911 unless my loved one is in serious distress and very aggressive or threatening — when I feel I can’t cope and I feel unsafe,” Chan told CBC.

“They may be smashing my windows or they might have a knife in hand or they may have me pinned.”

But none of Chan’s calls have brought Car 87 to her door.

“The operators usually try to comply and they keep you on the phone, and they tell you that they’re trying to get Car 87 … and then they have to say, ‘Look, 87 is busy and can’t make it,'” she said.

Chan, the vice-president of Pathways Serious Mental Illness Society, is not alone in her experience. Vancouver service organizations and housing providers say that while the program is great in theory, Car 87 is rarely available. Even if a request is in the queue for service, police acknowledge the team can take days to arrive.

“That doesn’t work,” Chan said. “Most families will not make the call until they feel they have no recourse.”

The Car 87 program has been around in one form or another since 1978. It pairs a plainclothes police officer with a registered nurse or psychiatric nurse to do on-site assessments during mental health crises. A second team, known as Car 88, has been on the streets since last year, allowing the service to operate from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.

It’s run by the Vancouver Police Department in partnership with Vancouver Coastal Health. Anyone who needs help can ask for Car 87 by calling police or VCH’s Access and Assessment Centre.

72-hour ‘urgent’ response time

David MacIntyre, executive director of the MPA Society, describes the program as an essential service for his non-profit, which provides housing and other supports for people dealing with mental illness.

“Our experience was that the service was oversubscribed, if you will, that they weren’t getting to every call — and if there was a call, it was delayed,” he said.

Staff at buildings operated by Atira Women’s Resource Society have given up on calling for Car 87 altogether when a client is in crisis, according to CEO Janice Abbott.

“I would say nine times out of 10, when you call for Car 87, you’re just told to call 911 instead,” she said.

Chan says every time she has requested Car 87, uniformed officers have arrived instead. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

The lack of service led MacIntyre to write a letter to mayor and council in May 2019 on behalf of 19 Vancouver agencies, saying that delays in service from Car 87 put staff and clients at risk.

In the letter, MacIntyre expressed alarm over learning that an “urgent” response time for Car 87 was considered to be anything within 72 hours, and he called for that timeline to be reduced to 24 hours.

“I was concerned about the impact of them not showing up,” he told CBC. “We don’t call Car 87 unless we deem it to be necessary.”

MacIntyre was pleasantly surprised by the response. VPD and Vancouver Coastal Health immediately put together a committee with housing providers and other stakeholders and began adding resources, including Car 88. The committee now reviews individual cases to see what could have been done better.

“I honestly have seen an improvement … and some responsiveness that I haven’t experienced in the past,” MacIntyre said.

But he added that it’s not yet where it should be — and there’s been no change to that 72-hour urgent response time.

‘We don’t have the resources’

Vancouver police spokesperson Sgt. Steve Addison said there are usually about 200 calls a month for Car 87 and several reasons why it might not be available.

“Sometimes Car 87 or 88 isn’t available because they’re on another call or they’re at the hospital on a mental health apprehension or they’re off shift because it’s the middle of the night,” he said.

He explained that dispatchers have to make an assessment for every call to determine how high the priority should be. Sometimes if there’s an imminent risk of violence, Addison said the best option might be uniformed police officers.

“Bottom line is we have two cars that are on the road on any given day, and it takes time for them to properly do their job,” he said.

“We’d love to be able to send Car 87 or Car 88 to all of those calls, but in a lot of cases, they’re just not available because we don’t have the resources.”

Chan says she doesn’t agree with the push to defund the police, but would like to see some ‘de-tasking’ in certain areas, including mental health. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

In Chan’s experience, when Car 87 hasn’t been available, uniformed police respond to her home instead.

She says she has no complaints about the VPD officers who’ve shown up at her door. The ones she’s dealt with have been well trained and compassionate, and some have been truly excellent at de-escalating a potentially dangerous situation.

But Chan points out that police officers have different priorities than mental health professionals. Their job is to enforce the law, not to get people proper health care.

She experienced the conflict between those priorities one night in September when she called to request Car 87 after arranging for her daughter to be admitted to hospital. When uniformed police arrived instead, the officers saw there was a court order forbidding Chan’s daughter from being at her house.

“They refused to take her to hospital. They took her to jail,” Chan said.

Her daughter spent the night behind bars, an arrangement that Chan says could have had serious consequences.

“She could harm herself or she could harm someone else. She was put into further distress when she was already distressed,” Chan said.

She’d like to see urgent mental health matters taken out of the hands of the police whenever possible.

“People are calling for defunding the police, I don’t call for that,” Chan said.

“What I call for is de-tasking the police. They are being asked to do a job which is really, really difficult to do, that they have not really been trained to do.”

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