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Million-Dollar Callers

Burlington's street workers reach out to the worst 911 abusers, and save the city a bundle


Published November 24, 2010 at 9:41 a.m.

Justin Verette
  • Justin Verette

Wednesday, 3:30 p.m.

Justin Verette is a half hour into his shift, and “Chrissie” is already lighting up his cellphone like a pinball machine. His phone rings every few minutes, but for now he’s letting the calls go to voicemail. Verette, a clinical interventionist with the HowardCenter’s street outreach team in Burlington, needs to get debriefed on the day’s events before hitting the streets.

Verette won’t let Chrissie’s calls go unanswered for long. She’s a “well-known cutter” with a personality disorder and a history of deliberately hurting herself for attention. If he doesn’t call her back soon, she’s likely to show up downtown, bloody and needing an ambulance.

Chrissie isn’t a familiar face only to the street outreach team. She’s also well known to the police department, fire department, emergency room, county jail and psychiatric unit at Fletcher Allen Health Care. In fact, of the top 25 users of Burlington’s emergency services, Chrissie is No. 1. And that makes her a top priority for Verette.

Chrissie’s isn’t the only name lighting up Verette’s phone. A half dozen other clients who know his work schedule are clamoring for his attention, too. (Pseudonyms are used in this story for all of Verette’s clients to protect their privacy.)

Over the next eight hours, Verette will triage as many as 50 calls from a handful of individuals just like Chrissie. Some will call repeatedly, even after he’s called them back or paid them visits.

Calls from police dispatch always gets first priority, as do clients in crisis and individuals who are threatening to do something to elicit an emergency response, such as kicking in storefront windows, overdosing on their meds, punching a cop or — Chrissie’s modus operandi — slashing their wrists.

Matt Young, Verette’s supervisor, has been a street outreach worker in Burlington for more than a decade. He’s adopted an old Caribbean phrase to describe these attention-seeking behaviors: “poppy show.”

Traditionally a poppy show refers to any behavior that’s ridiculous or embarassing, but the expression isn’t meant to show disrespect toward clients, Young emphasizes. Poppy show is a catch-all phrase for the disturbances, histrionics and nuisance complaints that needlessly consume the time and resources of Burlington’s emergency responders.

Most are nonemergencies involving people who suffer from mental illness, substance abuse or other unmet social-service needs. Together, these “high-service” individuals don’t just wear on the patience of Burlington’s emergency responders and take a toll on staff morale; they also cost taxpayers literally millions of dollars each year in lost time and resources.

Who stars in the poppy show? The Old North End resident who calls the cops whenever she smells her neighbor smoking a cigarette. The schizophrenic who whacks passersby on Church Street with a loaf of Italian bread. The paranoid shut-in who calls the FBI repeatedly to report that aliens are frying his internal organs with a microwave ray gun mounted atop city hall.

Actually, tonight’s steady stream of calls to Verette is a good sign. It means those people are not calling 911. And that’s his goal each night: to divert the nonemergency calls made by people who don’t need a cop, firefighter or paramedic, just someone to pay attention to them once the sun goes down.

3:45 p.m.

Verette and Young are in the outreach team’s downtown office on College Street finishing up “crossover.” It’s an opportunity for Young, who works the day shift, to update Verette and tell him what to expect that night. On a recent weeknight, Young allows me to tag along with Verette and observe him in action.

Together, they review the daily censuses from the state hospital in Waterbury, the psych unit at Fletcher Allen, the county jail in South Burlington, and a handful of other lockups and drug-rehab centers around the state. Essentially, they’re looking for anyone who’s expected to show up in Burlington and start a poppy show.

On their radar tonight is a 20-year-old homeless man Verette knows from his years of doing street outreach for Spectrum Youth & Family Services. The young man, who’s had several recent run-ins with police, is now showing signs of paranoid schizophrenia.

Although the man’s family has a history of mental illness, Young suspects he may also be using psychotropic drugs, which muddy the picture. Like many of Young’s regulars, the youth is deeply resistant to the idea of treatment.

“We may have to let nature take its course,” Young says. “The police will probably get him on outstanding warrants.” Once that happens, he explains, the court can use the man’s criminal charges as leverage to get him treated. Though the criminal-justice system can be one way to connect individuals with psychiatric care, it’s not the most economical one.

“The last thing the courts want is someone in there on a poppy-show violation,” Young says. “So, we let the poppy show play out with us instead.”

Verette, 34, is a big, burly bear of a guy with short black hair, a goatee, five-o’clock shadow and arms tattooed in dark, spiderweb patterns. For years he worked for Spectrum, reaching out to homeless teens on the streets of Burlington.

Much of Verette’s street cred with clients comes from his intimate understanding of their lifestyles. A California native, he grew up in Modesto and spent summers in Los Angeles. When Verette was 14, his stepfather tossed him out of the house for getting his ear pierced.

In high school, Verette got into drugs for several years, then tried his hand at college. That didn’t work out. Eventually, he ended up living on the streets of Santa Cruz, sleeping on beaches, in backyards, in friends’ closets or in his car. Verette finally hit bottom at 24. Ironically, it was the homeless people he’d met, he says, who most inspired him to clean up his act and turn his life around.

4:55 p.m.

Verette drives to the police station for 5 p.m. roll call. Though he’s technically a HowardCenter employee, Verette’s 30-month position is funded through the Burlington PD with a $147,000 federal stimulus grant. If that sounds like a lot of money to create just one job, Police Chief Mike Schirling, who advocated for Verette’s position, has crunched the numbers to prove otherwise.

As Schirling explains, about 85 percent of his officers’ work is not criminal investigations but nuisance calls that haven’t yet risen to the level of crimes. Of those, the vast majority are driven by mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, or other problems in the household, such as poor parenting skills, lack of education and dysfunctional relationships.

Schirling produces a chart showing the breakdown of expenses that resulted from one actual “low-level user” of the city’s emergency services — a female offender who was released from correctional custody during a 15-week period from June 1 to September 14. Although she has several “co-occurring disorders,” including mental illness and substance abuse, none is serious enough to warrant court-ordered institutionalization or drug rehab.

Using very conservative estimates, Schirling tallied up the cost of her contacts with the city’s emergency services over those 15 weeks. They included 11 police responses, three ambulance rides, three emergency-room visits, four criminal charges (including prosecutors, defense attorneys and court costs), four transports to jail and several days of incarceration.

The total cost to taxpayers for this woman’s 15-week stint in Burlington: $17,900. Extrapolate that figure to a full year, Schirling says, and the cost to the system would be more than $66,000. By comparison, a Burlington police officer’s starting salary is $42,500.

Schirling deliberately lowballed the expenses to about a quarter of their true price. He also didn’t include such expenses as departmental overhead, employee benefits or office supplies. “We didn’t want to be accused of inflating the numbers,” he says.

Next, Schirling pulls out his list of the city’s top 25 high-service individuals. Essentially, it’s Verette’s client list.

“These are million-dollar people. Each one, a million dollars a year,” Schirling says. “There are people on this list who we deal with every day. That go to the emergency room every day. We transport them there, because they’ve got to go there before they go to detox or a shelter.”

Scratch even one name off that list, he says, and Verette’s job has more than paid for itself.

5:26 p.m.

With roll call complete, Verette drives to his first appointment: Chrissie. For his first few months on the job, which started in November 2009, Verette rode with officers in their cruisers. According to Young, the success of the position — the only one of its kind in the state — is predicated on Verette’s ability to gain officers’ trust and respect.

Thus far, Verette appears to be succeeding. Based on internal departmental surveys, two-thirds of BPD cops have used his services, and, of those, most say he’s helped reduce their workloads. Their No. 1 suggestion: Hire more people to do his job. Equally important: Verette seems to have established a good rapport with the population who overuse the system.

These days, Verette drives his own car so he can see clients at will and answer calls anywhere in the city. As we approach an apartment building near the University of Vermont, he calls Chrissie to tell her we’re about to pick her up. The promise of riding in his car is an incentive he uses to keep her out of trouble.

“I know you’re waiting for me. Sorry, I saw that you called, but I’ve been busy!” he tells her in a tone suggestive of a parent cheering a mopey child. “Hey, no farting in my car tonight, OK?” he adds playfully.

Outside Chrissie’s apartment, Verette gives me the rundown on her history. Before he started working with her a year ago, she was calling 911 10 to 15 times a night. Or she’d just show up in the ER for no apparent reason. Often, she would refuse to leave until staff had her arrested. Chrissie was there so often that the hospital obtained a trespass order barring her from the premises unless she arrived by ambulance.

Like many of Verette’s clients, Chrissie has been homeless before and tends to be more active at night, when there aren’t as many support systems to help quiet her demons.

Chrissie gets in the front seat, and we drive off. She’s 38, stocky and speaks with a slow, slurred, almost monotone voice. I ask her what life was like before she met Verette.

“I was spending long periods of time in jail,” she says. “Before he came, I was very suicidal. I’d literally catch my arms on fire or take a lot of pills. When I first met him, I slit my wrists a few times … I’ve only been arrested four times since Justin started working with me.”

As we drive south on Shelburne Road, Chrissie ticks off a list of hospitals, psych facilities and jails she’s been in. She also talks about her “trust issues” with cops.

“I used to hurt the police … but I don’t hurt them anymore,” she explains. “I also got really mad at Justin when I first met him, but it didn’t take me long to learn to trust him.”

She mentions one night when she didn’t call Verette for fear of angering him.

“Correct me if I’m wrong,” Verette replies, in a judicious tone, “but that’s because I had just talked to you, and then, 15 minutes later, I was in a cruiser and I heard your name over the radio because you’d just called up to say you’d taken an OD.”

“That was the second time I overdosed,” she confesses.

I ask Chrissie why nights are so hard for her.

“Well, I’m scared of the dark, and there’s more idle time,” she explains. “I just have anxieties that come out at night, and I start to get paranoid … I used to go weeks without sleeping. The nighttime is something I really dread.”

Chrissie admits she and Justin meet “just about every night.”

“Technically, she’s only supposed to get about a half hour every day,” Verette adds, “but I’m such a pushover, I let it slide.”

“I’m manipulative,” she answers with a guilty smile.

We stop at a Starbucks on Shelburne Road in South Burlington and go inside. It’s their nightly routine: Verette buys her a cup of coffee, they chitchat about her day, and he asks about whatever’s been bothering her. Sometimes, she says, they play “punch buggy.”

Outside in the parking lot, Chrissie spots a red VW bug and slugs Verette in the arm.

“Punch buggy red!” she shouts triumphantly.

“You know, you just started a war,” he says, rubbing his shoulder in mock pain.

We drive around town for another 20 minutes, making small talk, before returning to Chrissie’s apartment. She’s reluctant to leave, but Verette promises to touch base with her before his shift ends.

For an observer, it’s hard to gauge the impact of his visit on Chrissie. She’s upbeat when we leave her, and Verette is the only person she hit.

According to the BPD, Chrissie logged fewer than half as many incidents between January and June of this year compared with the same period last year. Whether those improvements are due to Verette, other street outreach workers or the other clinicians assigned to her case is impossible to determine.

Verette cautions that, with someone like Chrissie, things are good until they’re not. “Not every night is like this,” he adds.

7:31 p.m.

After returning some calls and picking up groceries for a client, Verette drives to an apartment building off Main Street to pick up “Kelly.”

“Kelly definitely needs a lot of attention,” he explains. “She loves getting that time alone with me because she doesn’t have a lot of friends. And if she does, they’re probably using her for something.”

Kelly, 44, climbs into the passenger seat. She’s a big woman with glasses, piercings and a gentle voice. Like Chrissie, she’s a cutter, and is eager to talk.

“I’ve had emotional difficulties for the last year or so,” she says matter-of-factly. “Justin’s been there to support me, and he’s made me promise to not hurt myself when I feel like hurting myself. And, the one time I couldn’t hold up to that promise, I called him and he understood.”

As Verette drives into South Burlington, Kelly recounts her last trip to the ER, after she deliberately stabbed herself in the leg and almost hit an artery. That was a year ago.

“Yes, but lately you’ve been taking care of yourself, trying to keep yourself away from people who either have negative energy or who bring you a lot of drama,” Verette reminds her. “You’ve definitely been doing really well, right?”

“That’s right,” she says with a hint of pride.

We stop at Starbucks on Williston Road. Verette buys Kelly a drink; then they stand outside and chat as she smokes a cigarette. Kelly talks about her cats and how Verette once bought them flea collars.

“We need more people like Justin,” she says. “Because there’s a lot more people like me who depend on him.”

Almost an hour later, we’re back at Kelly’s apartment. During their time together, Verette’s phone has rung several times, including several more calls from Chrissie. But, as none came from dispatch, Verette let them go to voicemail. This is Kelly’s time, he explains, and it’s important she get his undivided attention.

In her driveway, Kelly gives both Verette and me bear hugs.

“I cherish Justin, and I will always carry that as long as I live,” she says, before heading inside. “Because I’m a human being with compassion and emotions and plenty of love with a big heart.”

“You do have a big heart, Kelly,” Verette says with a smile. “That’s for sure.”

9:40 p.m.

We stop at Rite-Aid on South Winooski Avenue so Verette can pick up sodas and chips for his next appointment: a mother and daughter living in the Old North End. According to Verette, they’re “very obsessed” with the Burlington police. In the past, they would call the police repeatedly to complain about neighbors and request responses from specific officers they like.

“Now, they call me at least 15 times a day,” Verette says. “There are definitely personality disorders there, but they’ve never been diagnosed.”

We park outside a shoddy-looking duplex off North Street and knock at the first-floor apartment.

Inside, “Beatrice,” the daughter, and “Marilyn,” the mom, are seated in a small kitchen that’s overdue for a cleaning. Atop the refrigerator sits a massive teddy bear. “JUSTIN VERETTE” is scrawled across its fuzzy belly in purple marker.

Marilyn is a short woman who speaks excitedly with a heavy Vermont accent. After we exchange pleasantries, she lowers her voice and whispers, “The neighbors are doing drugs.”

Beatrice sits at the kitchen table. She tears open the bag of chips Verette brought her and mostly ignores the conversation. Carved over and over into the wooden tabletop are the same letters. Later, Verette explains they’re the initials of the women’s favorite Burlington cop.

Verette spends about 20 minutes here, mostly making small talk. Beatrice discusses some of her favorite horror movies while Marilyn instructs him in how to make a mayonnaise cake.

After some playful banter, Verette gently steers the conversation toward a serious subject: their finances. Like many of his clients, Marilyn and Beatrice often burn through their disability checks before the month is over.

“With how much money you guys are getting each month, I’d kind of like to experiment with something different,” he says, “so you can buy groceries in the first half of the month and have something left over for the second half.”

“OK,” says Marilyn, sounding unconvinced.

Beatrice, who seems oblivious to the discussion, leaves the room. “Ma? Where are my 3-D glasses?”

Checking the time, Verette promises to call again before his shift ends.

Before he leaves, Beatrice blurts, “Justin is like a brother to me.”

10:10 p.m.

I leave Verette just as he heads to his last call for the evening. Although the night proved uneventful from my perspective — no clients in crisis, no visits to the jail or ER, no calls from dispatch — Verette considers it productive. As he puts it, “Everyone’s in a good space tonight.”

According to Young, about 80 percent of the team’s work now consists of proactive visits like the ones I witnessed.

“But it always changes,” Young adds. “What’s proactive one night, the next night that person is in Rite-Aid purchasing razor blades.”

According to Chief Schirling, in the past year, nine of the top 25 users of Burlington’s emergency services have been removed from his list — meaning they’re no longer daily callers. That reduction isn’t solely due to the work of Verette and the rest of the outreach team. Some clients are in drug treatment; others are dead.

Nothing Verette has done tonight is rocket science. He visited eight people, lent them an ear, allowed them to vent, joked around and casually slipped in a few suggestions about how to make it through the night.

For the price of his salary, plus a few cups of coffee, sodas, a bag of chips and a gallon of gas, Burlington’s cops, firefighters and ER staffers were free to focus on more urgent business.

Which is not to suggest that Verette’s job is easy. Much of the work he does goes on behind the scenes: securing housing for the homeless, tracking down open beds in drug treatment centers and working the social safety net to get people the services they need. Before leaving, I suggest that maybe one in a thousand people could do it.

He thinks a moment, then says, “You know, I can’t really think what else I’d rather be doing.”

For more info about the street outreach program, contact 343-7504.