Denver’s expanding the STAR program to connect people with long-term support

City Council approved a $2.3 million contract with Servicios de La Raza to partner with community organizations across the city.
4 min. read
The Support Team Assisted Response van. June 8, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The city's Support Team Assisted Response program, or STAR, will soon up its efforts to connect people with longer term support.

On Monday, City Council approved a $2.3 million contract with Servicios de La Raza, a nonprofit that aims to fight poverty.

After receiving care from STAR, which dispatches a mental health clinician and paramedic instead of police to nonviolent emergencies, Servicios de La Raza will connect people with community-based social services personalized to an individuals' needs and community.

"This is a really essential part of the STAR program that has not been in place previously," said Tristan Sanders, Denver Public Health Department director of community and behavioral health, at a council committee meeting.

"This is really to try and address the underlying social and support needs of people in a culturally responsive, linguistically specific and geographically convenient way, so people can get additional services in the neighborhoods where they live from providers they may be familiar with."

Council has already voted to expand STAR multiple times since it began in 2020, growing from one van to six in order to cover the entire city. It's popular with both police and mental health professionals. In its first six months no calls STAR responded to led to arrests.

Servicios de La Raza will work to identify the needs of people receiving care, as well as identify community organizations to subcontract. Part of the funding includes money for La Raza to hire and develop programs in-house if certain resources don't already exist in the community.

Emily Williams, Director of Communications and Marketing for the Department of Public Health and Environment, said the new partnership will fill current gaps in the responder program.

"Currently, the STAR team has limited options where they can refer a client to after the immediate need has been addressed, and community-based providers that provide culturally and linguistically relevant service are particularly limited," she said. "Right now, a client might be referred to a treatment program on the other side of town, which makes it difficult for that person to receive ongoing care."

Servicios de la Raza executive director Rudy Gonzales sits in his office. Feb. 1, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

It's an opportunity for the city to provide money and support to more grassroots organizations that don't often get city contracts.

La Raza CEO Rudy Gonzales said he particularly hopes to better provide people with resources from organizations focused on communities of color.

"The social determinants of health are vast, and it warrants a vast response," he said. "I think this is part of what STAR, on the human service side, should be about, bringing together a coalition of community based organizations doing great work in our communities."

At the committee meeting, Councilwoman Robin Kniech pointed out that it's not a typical contract for the city, since council approved the partnership with La Raza without yet knowing who its community partners will be or how much money each subcontracted group will get. Part of La Raza's job will be to figure out where the greatest need lies.

"There is a deep desire for this program to be responsive and accountable to community in new and deeper ways, not just as an alternative to policing, but also to be shaped by and connected to community. And I think this contract is really responsive to that," Kniech said.

While some members of council questioned whether the program will duplicate existing programs within the Denver Police Department, Kniech emphasized STAR is supposed to keep people out of the justice system and minimize unnecessary interaction with law enforcement.

"Using providers who are embedded in the police department may raise sensitivities and questions about those firewalls that are set up now," she said.

The contract will begin Nov. 1 and run for one year, with additional funding from Caring for Denver, a foundation that provides grants from a voter-approved sales tax. Leaders hope the program will be renewed in future years.

At Monday's council meeting approving the contract, Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca said she wants the city to grow its work with a diverse range of community partners.

"Thank you to the city for listening to community and building capacity in a community organization," she said. "I hope to see a more robust expansion of organizations that we invest in."

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