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Metro Transit sees results with health specialists along for the ride

Metro riders wait for the Red Line at a station beneath Grand Avenue in Midtown.
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
Behavioral health specialists have spent the past year engaging with riders on Metro Transit.

A pilot program that puts teams of health specialists on Metro Transit trains and regional hubs is seeing early results — and its organizers are eying further expansion.

Run by the nonprofit health provider Chestnut Health Systems, the program debuted in St. Clair County, Illinois, in April 2021. By March 2022, the company reported that its specialists connected 177 riders with services like drug treatment, emergency housing and food.

Emily Schwaegel of Chestnut Health.
Chestnut Health
Metro Link Project Coordinator Emily Schwaegel

“Our main thing that we are addressing is the unhoused population, followed by substance use and mental health,” Emily Schwaegel, Chestnut Health’s MetroLink project coordinator, said on Monday.

Schwaegel was part of the first two-person team deployed to ride Metro Transit trains in Illinois. Those outings represented the first stage in the pilot program’s operations in the St. Clair County Transit District. As the program expanded, Schwaegel explained, team members spent their days talking with riders and trying to connect them with services.

Accompanied by a security officer on their daily routes, the health specialists attempt to help riders who may be experiencing mental health distress, lack of housing or unfilled medication needs, or those who may require additional transportation to a shelter.

In other cases, riders followed up with health specialists at a later date to ask for particular services.

“Sometimes, that individual is ready at that time to sit down, get an appointment scheduled, maybe be transported to the service provider,” she said. “And then sometimes it's just giving them a business card [and] maybe a bottle of water.”

Those interactions add up. In that first year of operation, Chestnut’s health teams provided 68 backpacks with resources and distributed 71 boxes of Narcan.

While the program started in Illinois, Bi-State Development last year announced that it would put $350,000 toward a similar pilot program in St. Louis City and St. Louis County. In February, the two-person teams rolled out in Missouri: The teams are stationed at transit hubs in the Civic Center Transit Center in downtown St. Louis and the North Hanley Transit Center in St. Louis County.

Jim Wallis, Chestnut Health’s director of business development, told St. Louis on the Air that interest in the program is spreading beyond the bi-state area. The nonprofit is also seeking federal funding that could bolster the number of teams ready for the field.

Even so, Wallis said the program is still in its early stages.

“We're in the learning phase with bringing the experience across the water from St. Clair,” he said.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."