For decades, Portland law enforcement tried to arrest away the existence of people living at the crossroads of mental illness and homelessness, with little success. Two years ago, the city took a chance on a new first response program staffed by mental health workers meant to interrupt this fraught cycle of criminalization. And it’s working.
Portland Street Response, which sends unarmed employees to 911 calls related to people having behavioral health crises outside, has kept thousands of Portlanders out of jail and away from emergency rooms. In the past year, the team responded to more than 7,000 emergency calls that would have traditionally gone to police.
The different approach is palpable for those living outside who are familiar with police interactions.
“When [they] talk to you, [they] look you in the eye, not look down at your feet or look at your chest, or look at the clothes you’re wearing,” said one unidentified Portland Street Response client in a recent city-commissioned survey. “They care. These people care.”
Despite its measurable early success, Portland Street Response is at an inflection point after its first year expanding citywide.
An analysis by Portland State University researchers released this week finds the program has met its stated goals to reduce police officer workloads and provide an alternative to overburdened hospital emergency departments. Yet the report also points to several systemic problems that could hinder the program’s effectiveness.
Portland Street Response was established in City Hall on the back of a movement to divert funding from traditional policing. That foundation has made it a political football within city government, despite a unified interest among city leaders in helping people in crisis. With the exit of Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty from City Council in January, Portland Street Response no longer has a strong advocate for its success in City Hall. Paired with unreliable long-term funding, it’s not clear if the city is ready to address Portland Street Response’s challenges to make the ambitious program a permanent fixture in Portland’s first response network.
“It’s a good program and it needs to be sustained,” said Isaac McLennan, president of the Portland Fire Fighters’ Association, which represents roughly half of Portland Street Response workers. “But the politics of it have doomed it from its inception. I don’t know how you get out of that.”
City leaders say their focus is on steadying the program as the city enters a new form of government, in which bureau management will fall to a city administrator instead of an elected official. Yet they have no plans to address the immediate concerns outlined in the recent analysis, which researchers say could further injure staff morale and impact the group’s ability to help people in crisis.
Portland Street Response was established as a program within Portland Fire & Rescue in 2020 as an unarmed response to mental health crises or 911 calls related to people experiencing homelessness. The idea was to reduce over-policing of homeless Portlanders by dispatching mental health experts, social workers, or physicians to certain 911 calls. The program was modeled after a decades-old Eugene program called CAHOOTS, a nonprofit-run crisis response effort.
Portland Street Response gained attention during the racial justice protests of 2020 as a viable alternative to local police work. This momentum led Portland City Council to boost the program’s inaugural budget with an additional $4.8 million cut from the Portland Police Bureau.
A pilot program launched in February 2021, with a single team of two community health workers, one mental health therapist and a paramedic responding to calls in Southeast Portland’s Lents neighborhood. In April 2022, the program expanded citywide, and now dispatches up to six four-person teams across Portland daily.
The quick expansion has brought growing pains: Portland Street Response has struggled to hire and retain staff, which forced the program to temporarily scale back its operating hours last summer. This has been exacerbated by a recent hiring freeze instituted by Commissioner Rene Gonzalez, who unseated Hardesty last year and now oversees the Fire Bureau. The hiring freeze and budget shortfalls stalled the program’s plan to begin operating 24-7 earlier this year.
But data reflects the program’s success. The city has relied on researchers at Portland State University’s Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative to evaluate Portland Street Response from the start. The group’s latest report looks at the program’s first year operating citywide, from April 1, 2022 to March 31, 2023, during which Portland Street Response teams responded to more than 7,400 incidents (a 509% percent increase from the previous pilot year).
The numbers reflect the program’s mission to reduce police interactions. An estimated 97% of Portland Street Response calls would have traditionally required a police officer response. In total, Portland Street Response reduced Portland police officers’ annual call load by almost 4%. More specifically, the numbers show a 19% drop in police needing to respond to 911 calls characterized as “welfare checks” or “unwanted persons” – situations where callers are concerned about someone’s well being or want them removed from an area.
Portland Street Response’s work also lessened the burden on local hospitals: In the year period, only 2.5% of all Portland Street Response calls ended with a client needing to be taken to an emergency department.
“The team provided wound care, checked vital signs, administered medication, and helped to de-escalate mental health crises so the client received the care they needed but did not have to engage in high-cost emergency services,” the report reads.
In comparison, at least 14% of calls that Portland Fire & Rescue responded to during this time needed a hospital drop-off, and 40% of all mental health related calls that Portland Police responded to required an ambulance transport.
Only one response to a 911 call resulted in an arrest.
The report also identifies the program’s current weaknesses. It points to what appears to be a long-simmering conflict in the Portland Fire Bureau, where Portland Street Response is housed, which pits firefighters against Portland Street Response staff. Interviews with unidentified firefighters included in the report accuse Portland Street Response staff of being too “woke” and overly-sensitive to firefighters’ comments on the job, while Portland Street Response workers criticized the constraints of the Fire Bureau’s “hierarchical” structure.
This culture clash was illustrated in a March legal claim filed by a high-ranking Fire Bureau manager Tim Matthews, who previously oversaw Portland Street Response. Matthews said he had to discipline a fellow Fire Bureau supervisor for belittling Portland Street Response employees for asking to include preferred pronouns in staff introductions. Matthews claims he was denied a promotion by Fire Chief Sara Boone because of this disciplinary decision.
Firefighters also told researchers that they felt that Portland Street Response was “enabling” homelessness by handing out food, clothing, sanitary items and other basic supplies to clients. Portland Street Response staff say these offerings help establish trust with clients who may be wary to accept help.
“To us,” an unidentified firefighter told researchers, “it seems like they’re just giving stuff away to a group of people that we predominantly view as just taking and not giving back to society.”
Gonzalez also used the word “enabling” to describe Portland Street Response’s distribution work. In February, Gonzalez ordered a halt on Portland Street Response workers distributing tents to clients, as a move to reduce fires in homeless encampments. He said he understands the trust-building intent behind distribution, but believes distributing flammable items to people living outside undermines firefighters’ work.
“Firefighters’ job is to protect people,” Gonzalez said in a recent interview. “The concept of handing out tents to a population that has high rates of mental illness and very high rates of heavy drug use, is mind-boggling.”
Gonzalez said the cultural clash between Portland Street Response workers and firefighters goes beyond tent distribution. He suggested that some Portland Street Response staff joined the program because they hoped to replace traditional policing, and could be characterized as “police abolitionists.”
“A police abolitionist as a city employee involved in first responding… that is problematic for [the Fire Bureau],” Gonzalez said. “Firefighters view police as key to their safety in certain circumstances.”
Labor unions representing Portland Street Response’s 50-person staff reject the narrative that firefighters and program staff are at odds. The program’s medical staff are represented by the Portland Fire Fighters Association and its mental health and community outreach staff are members of the Professional & Technical Employees Local 17, or PROTEC17.
McLennan, president of the Portland Fire Fighters’ Association, said there is “little division” between firefighters and Portland Street Response members he represents, while Elliot Levin with PROTEC17 said his members have been confused by the characterization by some of the dueling factions.
“What it comes down to is that the day-to-day goals of our folks and [the Fire Bureau] align pretty strongly,” Levin said.
A group of Portland Street Response staff with PROTEC17 shared a joint statement with OPB expressing that sweeping decisions made by city leadership – like a recent hiring freeze and funding irregularities – are where the programs’ true challenges lie.
“This is outside the day-to-day interactions we have with our fire coworkers,” wrote the group of staff, who asked not to be identified out of fear of workplace retaliation. (In April, a Portland Street Response worker was placed on leave for speaking with the media.)
City-imposed barriers remain
The PSU report also identified leadership’s recent policy decisions as a detriment to Portland Street Response’s effectiveness.
Boone is retiring as fire chief as of July 12. Incoming Interim Chief Ryan Gillespie has overseen Portland Street Response since April. In May, he put a freeze on Portland Street Response purchasing all items, like food and clothing. He said that’s because he believed staff weren’t following city purchasing procedures – and were running out of funds to cover the expenses. He also was concerned that staff were distributing supplies to people experiencing homelessness who weren’t the explicit subjects of Portland Street Response calls.
“There’s a very good argument for the program needing to have access to food to support their mission of de-escalation when responding to mental behavioral crisis calls,” Gillespie said. “But food was being distributed [to people] outside of that 911 response system. Is that within the mission of the program? I’m not sure.”
PSU researchers urged the city to reverse this policy – and the tent ban – to improve morale within Portland Street Response. It also recommended quashing another recent policy mandating Portland Street Response workers be on the scene during city-orchestrated sweeps of homeless encampments. The report quotes several unidentified Portland Street Response staff expressing their discomfort with this policy, noting that it could lead to people experiencing homelessness associating Portland Street Response with camp sweeps – a scenario that can often trigger a mental health crisis itself.
“Any direct association between [Portland Street Response] and city-directed sweeps is not only beyond their scope of services (for which they are already short-staffed) but more detrimentally, it is counter to the central tenet of the program to not operate as an enforcement unit or use enforcement strategies in their work,” the report reads.
Gonzalez said he “fundamentally disagrees” with this assessment.
“What we told Portland Street Response is that, just because someone is in mental distress or some sort of distress as a result of a sweep, that doesn’t mean you don’t respond,” he said. “We’re not asking them to clean up camps.”
The report identifies other challenges that could further undermine Portland Street Response’s effectiveness.
The team remains barred from responding to calls involving suicide threats, someone who is inside a building, a weapon, or a person obstructing traffic. That’s due to protracted negotiations with the Portland Police Association, the union representing rank-and-file Portland Police officers who currently respond to these calls. A directive from City Council asked Portland Street Response and Portland Police Association to resolve this issue by June 30, 2022. A year later, and those involved in the negotiations say they’ve been indefinitely set on pause.
Program staff are also prohibited from writing “Director’s Custody Holds,” a term for when mental health workers believe someone in crisis poses enough of an imminent risk to themselves or others that they may be held against their will. After a worker writes a hold, the person in crisis is immediately sent to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. It’s up to Multnomah County to authorize Portland Street Response workers to write such holds. Yet county officials have denied the program’s request for this authority for years, citing legal concerns.
The report suggests that the city encourages the county’s sign-off on this request.
Gonzalez and Gillespie reject most of the report’s conclusions and recommendations. That may be why neither planned to release the report publicly, or to bring it to Portland City Council to discuss.
Greg Townley, co-founder of PSU’s Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative, was the lead researcher on the latest report. He said he tried repeatedly to meet with Gonzalez before the report was final to include his perspective, but did not receive a response.
Gonzalez told OPB he wasn’t planning on formally responding to the report’s findings until he heard the Fire Bureau’s analysis. Gillespie said the Fire Bureau is not planning on publishing an official response to the analysis.
PSU’s previous analyses of Portland Street Response have included a response from the Fire Bureau and engagement from the commissioner in charge of Fire & Rescue from the start. In the past, the city released the report during a City Council work session, where officials would ask Townley questions about the research. Townley said he’s disappointed about the lack of engagement from city leaders this year.
“I always wanted this to be a process where we’re really doing this, in close dialogue with one another,” Townley said. “I never wanted to feel like I’m this external evaluator, removed from the process who’s working in a secretive capacity, because that’s not really good for anyone.”
He said it felt like city leadership had “already made up their minds” about how they wanted Portland Street Response to operate, and didn’t want to factor in the new PSU data.
Townley said he was struck by the general lack of transparency and communication in the Fire Bureau’s handling of the report. For example, Townley said Fire Bureau officials also told him to only share the PSU report with Fire Bureau’s top brass, not Robyn Burek, the director of Portland Street Response. Because his contract explicitly notes sharing his report with Burek, Townley ignored that order.
“Withholding information, or having information exist in a vacuum ... It’s never productive,” he said.
Burek was out of the office and unable to comment on the report to OPB prior to this story’s publication.
Gonzalez did not directly critique Townley’s work, but said he’s interested in hiring another consultant from outside of Portland to analyze the program.
“Sometimes it feels like a little bit of an echo chamber inside the city,” he said. “So I’m just thinking about someone else… to take another look just with a fresh set of eyes on it.”
There is one recommendation raised in the PSU report that both Gonzalez and Gillespie are open to considering: Removing Portland Street Response from the Fire Bureau. The report suggests this as a solution to the alleged division between firefighters and Portland Street Response staff.
“If these differences cannot be adequately addressed and reconciled, it seems prudent to begin evaluating other possible homes for PSR that may be more nurturing of its continued growth and development,” the report reads.
The study recommends the city move Portland Street Response into the Community Safety Division, a new department that oversees gun violence prevention and homeless outreach programs. The department, which is currently overseen by Mayor Ted Wheeler, has been frequently pitched as a future home for Portland Street Response. Earlier this month, a public safety consulting firm hired to analyze Portland’s emergency response network made the same suggestion.
It’s also backed by former Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who established Portland Street Response as a city program and served as its strongest advocate on council.
In an email to OPB, Hardesty said she trusts Mike Myers, a former Portland fire chief who serves as the director of the Community Safety Division, to take on the responsibility.
“Mike Myers understands the culture of [Portland Street Response] and would not seek to undermine the effectiveness of the program,” Hardesty wrote. She went on to applaud the program’s growth “despite” decisions made by Gonzalez.
Gonzalez said that he’s open to considering moving Portland Street Response, but he believes it’s far too early to make that decision. For now, he said, his focus is on keeping the program afloat until the city’s government transition is finalized. The city is expected to hire a city administrator by 2025, who will take over the bureau management responsibilities currently held by city commissioners.
“We’re just trying to give it some space over the next 18 months to let it mature,” Gonzalez said. “And I think that helps shape what we do going forward.”
Uncertain financial future
It’s not immediately clear what funds will help keep the program running during that time.
Much of Portland Street Response’s $10 million budget in the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1, relies on one-time revenue streams, like federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars. The city originally planned to fill the coming funding gap with Medicaid dollars available through a new federal grant. But Gonzalez said he isn’t sure how to access those funds.
Hardesty claimed that the program already has federal approval for those dollars, but that Portland Street Response must be fully staffed to receive them.
“It would be pennywise and pound foolish to stunt the growth of this first responder since the need for its services continue to grow,” Hardesty wrote.
In the meantime, the program remains a political lightning rod.
For some, Portland Street Response reflects the future of alternative first response in a progressive city – enough that officials from cities from across the country have visited Portland to consider replicating the program. Oregon Democrats in Congress like Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Earl Blumenauer have also touted Portland Street Response as a national model for public safety.
Some members of the public, however, see the program entwined with a movement to defund police departments, posing a threat to public safety. Some have taken their concerns to council meetings, where they’ve expressed disappointment that the program doesn’t act as a law enforcement arm, and are upset that staff don’t remove or arrest people who are in crisis outside.
Waiting for a government overhaul
Gillespie, who has been at the Fire Bureau since before Portland Street Response’s formation, said he believes change in bureau leadership brought on by the coming government transition will help the program find financial stability – and move past the politics surrounding it.
“I would say one of the core issues with Portland Street Response is that it was driven as largely a political program,” said Gillespie. “That doesn’t work well on the operational level.”
He said this has led to financial uncertainty – like political debates informing city budget decisions – and a lack of standardized policies and procedures.
With a politician overseeing the program instead of a city administrator, the program is vulnerable to unexpected decisions informed by shifts in the political winds rather than managerial expertise.
“If we can get the politics out of it, the more successful the program is going to be,” he said.
Townley, the PSU researcher, agrees.
“We need someone [in charge] who really doesn’t have as much political investment in the success of the program,” Townley said. “I think that with a city administrator, Portland Street Response won’t be quite so vulnerable to the whims of one elected official.”
Portland Street Response staff are eager to get out from under the public stigma – both negative and positive – attached to their work. As the PSU report captures, many workers feel unrealistic expectations from the public to solve the city’s biggest issues, from homelessness to drug addiction. Staff say they want to focus on what drew them to the job: Helping people.
“We’re all doing the best we can to serve the city and our clients,” write Portland Street Response staff with PROTEC17. “We’re all thinking about our work and not interested in conflict.”