Testimony of Jorge Membreño, Director of Youth Advocacy, before the Committee on Health

January 29, 2024
Person Testifying: Jorge Membreño
Title: Director of Youth Advocacy, DC Action
Testimony Heard By: Committee on Health
Type of Hearing: Oversight Hearing

Good afternoon, Chairwoman Henderson. Thank you for the opportunity to address this committee today. My name is Jorge Membreño, I am the Director of Youth Advocacy at DC Action, home of the Youth Economic Justice and Housing Coalition. DC Action uses research, data, and a racial equity lens to break down barriers that stand in the way of all kids reaching their full potential. I am here to testify about the importance of embedded and mobile mental health services that meet the needs of youth experiencing homelessness and how the Department of Behavioral Health can scale up supports.

In the District, 32% of youth experiencing homelessness reported to have impaired mental health. Previously, I worked as Director of Youth Housing and Clinical Services for a community-based organization, and witnessed the importance of mobile and embedded mental health supports. Whenever a mental health crisis arises, it takes one to two staff members to triage and support. That’s in an ideal crisis, if there is such a thing. A crisis can involve a psychotic episode, dramatic mood shifts, or impulsive and potentially aggressive behavior. The current solution is for DBH to dispatch a crisis team, but that’s also a best case scenario, because many times they don’t show up.

I currently work with youth homelessness services providers who continue to report the same struggle with the available crisis teams. Some will wait for hours with someone in crisis, which pulls them away from the rest of the youth they are working with. What they hear most often is, “we’ll get back to you,” but a mental health crisis requires a timely response. God forbid there is more than one crisis at a time.

The added struggle here is that if behavior escalates, the prescribed solution is to reach out to the police. Needless to say, this is not an appropriate solution for a youth who is struggling with mental health. This is not to disparage DBH crisis teams, as they are incredibly dedicated staff who do some of the hardest work. This is all to say that we just don’t have enough of them. DBH crisis teams have to triage their supports based on the current need in the city across all of their calls. We should not have to operate in a system where someone else’s crisis means a gap in services for youth experiencing homelessness. These youth deserve to not only have housing, but to also have the proactive and consistent mental health supports needed to remove barriers to permanent housing. As my colleague Rachel White highlighted, a traveling mental health team is an effective model for increasing access to mental health services, which decreases the acuity of crises.

Thank you for your time and I look forward to working together to build an equitable mental health system for our city.