Credit: Brett Villena

In the past 18 months Raleigh’s crisis response team, the ACORNS unit, has helped track down a birth certificate for someone in order to help them get SNAP benefits; built a rapport with someone on a university campus showing “concerning behaviors” and made connections with their family, and helped transport someone panhandling on Glenwood Avenue get to their monthly medical care appointment.

“We understand the need to foster growth, patience, relationships, and understanding with our community,” said Raleigh police Lt. Renae Lockhart, who commands ACORNS (Addressing Crises Through Outreach, Referrals, Networking, and Service). “We are all passionate about what we do and we are making sure we are seeing the people behind the homelessness, behind the mental health issues, and behind the substance use.” 

Now, ACORNS will add a new social work supervisor and three new social workers to its existing team of nine, according to a Tuesday presentation from Lockhart at Raleigh’s city council meeting.  

The Raleigh City Council earmarked $800,000 for the expansion of  ACORNS for the fiscal year 2022-’23. Now that the money has been allocated, the unit will outline the new positions and hire people to fill them. 

The three new social workers will be stationed in Raleigh’s busiest districts, where the ACORNS unit has seen the most activity: Downtown, Southeast Raleigh, and North Raleigh. Some money will also be used to buy a data-tracking system, Lockhart added.

The system will help track the number of people with whom the unit comes in contact, as well as their backgrounds and needs. City council members have also asked the unit to track the kinds of calls they respond to—for example, the number of encounters with people who are experiencing a mental health crisis. 

ACORNS, which began work in June of 2021, is currently focused on helping people dealing with homelessness, mental health concerns, and substance abuse issues, Lockhart said. Team members work to connect people to the care they need. 

The team is composed of Lockhart, a police sergeant, a detective, three police officers, and three social workers. After the new positions are filled, the team will expand from nine people to 13 people. Everyone wears civilian clothing, rather than uniforms, while on duty, said Police Chief Estella Patterson. 

Raleigh’s approach to crisis intervention

The ACORNS unit has faced some criticism for its approach to crisis intervention, which is different from some other programs where staff are dispatched through the 911 system. Specifically, the unit has drawn comparisons to Denver’s STAR program, as well as Oregon’s CAHOOTS program. 

“We are familiar with CAHOOTS, We’re familiar with the STAR program,” Lockhart said during her presentation. “Before the launch of ACORNS … the research and planning unit took a lot of time to research and talk to these other departments, other agencies. And what they came up with is what’s best for Raleigh.”

Detective Wendy Clark expanded on that point.

“When we started with the development of the unit, what we had envisioned turned out to be something very different than what we have now,” Clark said. She added that the department was finding more success providing more of a “wraparound service.”

“We could respond to the 911 calls, [but] it’s putting a band-aid on [the problem],” Clark continued. “You’re responding to the original crisis. What we’re doing is we’re coming in on the backside, making sure people are connected to resources … and making sure they’re getting from point A to point B, so there are not repeat calls for service.”

Who responds to people in crisis?

Right now, the ACORNS unit itself initiates responses to calls for service, meaning members decide when and where they go out into the community. The ACORNS unit monitors police radio and officer dispatches, but they are not directed by 911 operators. Still, ACORNS  does respond to 911 calls alongside officers and follows up with the people that officers encounter during their patrols.

“If there is a call where…somebody that is in crisis or somebody that’s dealing with a mental health issue, these individuals do respond to that,” said Patterson. “The officers know the routine by now. They will call us upfront and say, ‘we need to have ACORNS respond to this call.’”

The Raleigh Police Department also has a crisis intervention team, with officers who are specifically trained to respond to mental health crises, as well as a crisis negotiation unit, which responds to “barricaded subjects and hostage situations,” Lockhart said. 

Lockhart added that dispatching ACORNS unit members through the 911 system may be an option for the future, “as long as it’s not taking away from the care navigation we’re providing right now,” she said. “When we have the additional staff, we may be able to be dispatched to certain groups of calls that would be helpful to patrol [officers].” 

By the numbers

ACORNS team members spend most of their time out in the field, Lockhart said. From August 2021 to December 2022, they responded to more than 1,000 calls for service. The unit’s top three requests were for follow-up investigations—for example, with people dealing with mental health issues or overdose; requests for transportation to shelters, medical care, or other services; and searches for missing persons. 

During that same time, the ACORNS unit made contact with 546 people in need, secured 86 release of information forms (which help them coordinate care), and accepted nearly 400 referrals from RPD. Lockhart added that the unit has been able to help nine people find permanent housing and reconnect seven people to their families. 

Raleigh’s efforts to coordinate care and provide more services to people in need have drawn a lot of those people to the area.

“The majority of the folks we come in contact with are new to Raleigh,” Lockhart said. “They’re looking for resources.”

That was expected, according to city staff.

“A lot of the folks on the regular roll now are people that have been dropped off at Moore Square or dropped off downtown and it’s not necessarily Raleigh natives,” said City Manager Marchell Adams-David. “Our perspective is, we provide help to whoever needs it. There’s no picking and choosing.”

ACORNS is also working on  securing regular transportation for people who need it, rather than just meeting their needs on a case-by-case basis with limited staff. City council members are working on creating a van service for the ACORNS unit and social workers to use in partnership with the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, said Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin. The ACORNS unit is also working on buying three of its own vans and creating a mobile office. 

It all comes back to housing

The biggest outstanding need for the people served by the ACORNS unit is, predictably, affordable housing. One of the social workers with the unit, Chelsea Levy, explained that the number of vouchers (which qualify people for discounted or emergency housing) far outnumbers the number of apartments and other units that are available. 

“The bucket is full of [vouchers], but there is nowhere to house them,” said Levy. “There is almost no affordable housing in the city of Raleigh, so those vouchers are actually being recycled back to the Raleigh Housing Authority and those people are finding themselves still experiencing homelessness.”

Levy said she and others have been working with Wake County to find private landlords willing to help (through the county’s Landlord Engagement Unit), but “there’s just not enough to go around.” Levy often works with people who may have a criminal history, evictions, or poor credit, which makes it harder to find private landlords willing to rent to them, she said.. 

The waitlist for vouchers is around five to seven years, which means that once people are forced to give them up, they could remain on the streets for a half-decade or more. Vouchers can be extended for up to 120 days once issued, about four months, but after that, many people are out of luck. 

“A lot of people are having to turn back in their vouchers and get back on the waitlist and just cross their fingers,” Levy said.“They’re on the street, in shelters, self-paying for hotels. I have a lot of contacts who are receiving disability checks every month and then they’re using it up in a week-and-a-half on hotels, because it’s cold. There is [the] white flag [shelter], but a lot of those who have been in shelters for years and years, they just don’t want to return.”

For more information, or if you know someone who needs help, contact the ACORNS unit at or 919-996-3345.

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