St. Paul fire department requests $600K from city for embedded social worker program

The St. Paul Fire Department is seeking $600,000 from the city for an embedded social worker program.

The department made the request during a presentation delivered to the St. Paul City Council on Sept. 8.

According to the presentation, the requested funding for the Social Workers Response Program would go toward supporting on-call and embedded social workers for a 24/7 response to help people in crisis.

The department specifically highlighted assisting organizations such as Catholic Charities, Safe Space, Union Gospel Mission and Listening House.

St. Paul Fire Department Chief Butch Inks said during the virtual presentation that the goal would be to provide a social worker response and prevention and connection resources for residents in crisis.

"What it looks like at a high level is, again, a 24/7 capability of providing a social worker for our residents in responding to our homeless population, our mental health population," Inks said. "What’s going on right now is there’s a gap in coverage."

"Right now, our paramedics are responding, our deputy chiefs are responding, everyone is responding to try to help, and oftentimes we get them to a medical facility or we try to find shelter, but that’s, quite frankly, not the help they may need at the time. It just kicks the can down the road," Inks went on to say. "We want to provide a program that would be housed in the fire department but would be a citywide resource for everybody to use to get the right resource for the person that needs it."

Inks said a more structured plan for the program would likely be available in October.

In response to the proposal, Council President Amy Brendmoen said the council "has often expressed hesitancy about budgeting for a program that will be invented in 2022 or beyond and I think this one in particular has been a little bit of a hot potato, so the commitment to return with a fully-baked program for us to look at before we pass a final budget is important."

Council member Jane Prince said county support must be part of the equation in considering the funding request.

"When you come back before us," Prince said, addressing Inks, "the county needs to be a partner in this, and the county needs to be putting some money forward for this."

The fire department joins other statewide agencies — such as police departments in Hennepin County, the St. Paul Police Department and the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and Woodbury Police Department — that have recently begun considering, or have already implemented, an embedded social worker program in an effort to improve responses to emergency calls, particularly calls related to mental health or substance use crises.