After a summer of contentious debate over how much money Portland Street Response should receive in its inaugural year, a city-commissioned evaluation of the program has a recommendation: Give it the resources to go citywide.
Portland Street Response was established in an effort to provide better outcomes for people experiencing homelessness or in the midst of a mental health crisis, and lessen the call load for the city’s overburdened public safety bureaus. From mid-February through mid-August, the program dispatched a team — composed of a paramedic, two health workers, and a therapist specializing in mental health crises — to 383 calls or an average of about 15 per week. Two-thirds of calls involved people experiencing homelessness, and roughly half involved someone who needed mental health care.
The recommendation to expand the program citywide came in a glowing review of the emerging non-police response program presented to the city council Tuesday. City leaders had asked Portland State University’s Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative to evaluate the first six months of Portland Street Response’s work dispatching a team of unarmed first responders to non-emergency calls. The program is housed within the city’s fire bureau and currently limited to one team in Portland’s Lents neighborhood in Southeast Portland.
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who as the commissioner in charge of the fire bureau helped launch the program, pushed this summer for enough funding to scale up citywide with six teams. But Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioners Mingus Mapps and Dan Ryan opposed the expansion at that time, all saying they wanted to ensure the program was successful before going citywide.
The council ended up fully funding the pilot in just the Lents neighborhood, and held off on allocating money to expand across the city. That time has now arrived, wrote Portland State University’s Greg Townley and Emily Leickly, who authored the report.
“Our first recommendation is to commit the necessary resources toward the expansion of Portland Street Response to eventually make its services available throughout the city and during all hours of the day,” the researchers said.
They measured the success of the program in part by looking at how it reduced three types of 911 calls: those police respond to where no crime had been committed; those that police and the fire bureau respond to that involved a behavioral health issue or a non-emergency; and those that resulted in someone being taken to the hospital unnecessarily.
The program had an impact on all three call types, per the report. The police bureau’s call load in the area was reduced by 4.6%. The fire bureau saw its calls for behavioral health and illegal burns reduced by 11.6%. And only 3.7% of the calls that were routed to Portland Street Response resulted in a trip to the hospital. No calls led to arrests.
“For the community that Portland Street Response was built for, Portland Street Response is exceeding our expectations of how we can help community members in crises where they are today,” Hardesty said Tuesday during a council presentation on the report.
The researchers found the most common outcome of these 911 calls was the Portland Street Response team evaluated the person and then left. The team referred 125 people to services such as shelter and financial help. Approximately one-third of calls were either cancelled before the team arrived or because they could not find the person.
The program could be relieving more pressure on the city’s strained public safety system. In addition to expanding citywide, the authors recommend the Portland Street Response increase the kinds of calls the team goes to. They suggest the program stop focusing solely on the street, and instead start sending teams into people’s homes. They also want the program to start responding to calls involving suicide.
A familiar barrier
But there’s a familiar obstacle: the city’s contract with the union representing rank and file police officers.
Portland Street Response has become a bargaining issue between the city and the Portland Police Association, as job requirements for staff overlap with responsibilities of police officers. To respond to calls involving suicide and those inside people’s homes, the researchers said, the city would need to change the union contract, which they are currently negotiating with the PPA. Multnomah County would also need to give the program staff permission to initiate “director’s holds,” the process of taking a person into custody when they are deemed a danger to themselves or others.
While the union brass has its reservations about the program, police officers themselves interviewed by the researchers expressed support for growing the program. As part of the evaluation, the researchers spoke with eight Portland Police Bureau members in the East Precinct about how they viewed the program.
Several said they wanted to see Portland Street Response expand — to more parts of the city, on more varied call types and during more hours of the day. The program currently operates Monday through Friday between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.
“We would love to have so many more calls go to Portland Street Response so we don’t have to deal with them,” one officer told researchers. “I think that most officers I work with recognize that a lot of calls we go to, it’s like, ‘This isn’t a police call. Why are we here?’”
Ironically, the report’s authors found the success of the non-police response could potentially be hampered by callers’ distrust of the city’s police bureau. As part of the report, the nonprofit Street Roots conducted a survey of unhoused people living in the Lents area to see how they experienced the program. The survey found roughly 58% of the 159 people surveyed did not feel comfortable calling 911, with many saying they did not feel safe calling police. This meant the respondents likely would have not have used the program, which is dispatched by 911 operators.
A general survey of people living and working in Lents showed a similar trend. Of the 80 respondents, 46% said they did not feel safe calling 911 if they saw someone who needed help.
The report suggested the city allow Portlanders to dial a different number to connect with the program such as 311. Hardesty said she wasn’t interested.
“I’m not a fan of a separate number for Portland Street Response,” Hardesty told her colleagues on the council. “It is a first responder (program) and in an emergency you should be able to call 911 and talk to an operator.”
The program is now poised to grow. Program manager Robyn Burek told reporters there will be a second team beginning this month in the Lents neighborhood. And, as part of the fall budget monitoring process, Portland’s fire bureau has asked for $1 million to expand the program citywide.
Wheeler announced at the end of the council session that he expects to support that request. The mayor said both he and Hardesty are looking to permanently fund the program.
“The commissioner and I don’t just want to start the program and have a bridge to nowhere,” he said.