Think Out Loud

Report highlights what’s working and what’s not inside Portland Street Response

By Rolando Hernandez (OPB)
June 27, 2023 5:43 p.m. Updated: July 11, 2023 4:55 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, June 27

Undated photos supplied by the City of Portland, showing members of Portland Street Response team at work.

Undated photos supplied by the City of Portland, showing members of Portland Street Response team at work.

Courtesy of City of Portland / OPB


In the last year, Portland Street Response expanded from a pilot program to a citywide service and answered more than 7,000 calls that would traditionally be handled by police. That’s according to a new report from Portland State University that also found that PSR aided in reducing the workload for police and hospitals. Despite the success of the program so far, researchers note that systemic issues could hinder overall effectiveness. Alex Zielinski is the Portland City Government Reporter for OPB. She joins us to share more details on the report and the future of the program.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Portland Street Response (PSR) started as a pilot program two years ago. The idea, which came from a long standing program in Eugene, is that when people are having nonviolent crises on the street, it’s better to have trained behavioral health specialists respond as opposed to police officers. PSR began just in the Lentz neighborhood last year, it expanded citywide and according to a recent report by researchers at Portland State University, it’s working. But that report also found serious issues that could jeopardize its future. Alex Zielinski is OPB’s Portland City Government reporter. She’s been looking into Portland Street Response and she joins us now. It’s good to have you back on the show.

Alex Zielinski: Thanks, Dave.

Miller: So as I just mentioned, this new report from PSU says among other things that we’ll get into the Portland Street Response is working, so how do they measure success?

Zielinski: They look at the data. So they look at how many 911 calls Portland Street Response staff respond to that would have traditionally gone to EMS or Police or Fire. And so in the past year, April 2022 to April 2023, Portland Street Response took more than 7,000 911 calls and 97% of those calls would have traditionally gone to a police officer. Which is, in total, just a 4% drop in police calls overall. But it adds up.

Researchers also zoomed in a little closer and looked at police response to calls that have been characterized as unwanted persons or welfare checks. There are situations where someone calls 911 because they’re worried about someone’s well being or they want them removed from an area. And a lot of times they align with people having behavioral health crises. And so the report found a 19% drop in police responding to those kinds of calls. They were instead going to PSR.

Miller: How much has the program grown since its initial pilot phase two years ago?

Zielinski: It’s really hard to underestimate how quickly it’s expanded since the pilot. There was one team of four people in the Lents neighborhood in Southeast Portland during that pilot. It’s now citywide, has up to six teams responding to calls every day, from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. It’s really skyrocketed.

Miller: Have there been growing pains specifically because of that growth?

Zielinski: Definitely. It’s been really hard for the program to staff up very quickly in the past year, I think for the same problems that a lot of businesses have had around hiring recently. And now the city has also had a hiring freeze on the Fire Bureau which is where PSR is located. So it’s still pretty understaffed.

Another issue is the city not having a reliable, long term funding source for the program. Both the staffing and the funding concerns have really kept the program from expanding to 24/7 as planned earlier this year.

Miller: I wanna come back to funding before we end. But let’s talk first about leadership. Portland Street Response was championed by, and created by, former Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty who lost her bid for reelection to Rene Gonzalez. What has that meant in terms of the day-to-day operations of the program?

Zielinski: Yeah, I think you said it. It means the program no longer has a champion on the City Council, which can go a long way for a small program’s success. It means there’s not necessarily someone fighting for the program’s growth and survival and funding in City Hall. Commissioner Gonzalez says he truly believes that Portland needs Portland Street Response. But he’s also overseen a few changes to the program that I think might reflect how he’d like to see it operate in the future. For one, he banned Portland Street Response workers from handing out tents, food and clothing to clients. Program staff said this could help build trust with people that they meet in the field. But Gonzalez has concerns. Here’s what he told me:

Rene Gonzalez (recording): “I get the argument up to a point that you’re going to try and build rapport with someone to earn trust by supporting them in some of their other needs or desires. Right? Like, and whether that’s shelter, that’s food or someone wants a cigarette. And then it’s like that helps build relationships. I get it up to a point but some of those things have downsides, right? And some of those things have…it certainly can support the argument that we aren’t enabling certain behaviors.”

Zielinski: And so that’s just one of the areas where Gonzalez has differed from Hardesty on this.

Miller: One of the big changes that follows Gonzalez taking over in the Fire Bureau, which oversees Portland Street Response, is that the program can now take part in sweeps of homeless camps. PSU researchers said that this is “antithetical to the core mission of PSR.” What do they mean?

Zielinski: Well, first, it’s important to note that homeless camp sweeps are often moments that trigger mental health crises for people living outside, the kind of crises that PSR would respond to. So PSU researchers say that it could undermine PSR’s effectiveness if people associate the program with these disruptive sweeps. At the same time, Commissioner Gonzalez thinks that if anyone’s having a crisis, regardless of if it has to do with a sweep or otherwise, that should be the responsibility of PSR to show up.

Miller: The Portland State University report also identified an issue that had already gotten some attention in recent months, a potential culture clash between firefighters and Portland Street Response staff. What’s it about?


Zielinski: Like you said the report mentioned some comments from firefighters and PSR staff, kind of characterizing what that clash feels like. I think it sounds like it’s based really on just the way those two organizations are structured. You know, we have a Fire Bureau which is more hierarchical than PSR, which kind of runs more like a nonprofit. And that leads to head butting. At the same time there are just political differences between the two groups, different ways that they see that their response fits into the city’s politics and policies. And so those have caused internal problems.

Miller: You noted in your reporting that word “enabling” which we heard from the Commissioner, that the fear is that PSR employees are enabling homelessness or homeless encampments. And the report also noted that same word, I think, from some firefighters. At the same time you have heard pushback, about this narrative of a culture clash, from the unions that represent both firefighters and PSR staff. What did they say?

Zielinski: That was really interesting to hear. Unions that represent both firefighters and PSR staff really pushed back. They said these two groups actually work really well together, they really support each other’s missions, that they really see eye to eye and what they’re doing and the bigger purpose. And they actually pointed to the bigger problems coming from city leadership.

Miller: So we talked a little bit about the changes that have come from the switch over from Jo Ann Hardesty to Rene Gonzalez. But do any current elected officials care even half as much about Portland Street Response as former Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty did?

Zielinski: I don’t think so. We aren’t seeing that. We’re at a point where it’s clear that this program needs a political ally to keep it afloat. But no one has stepped in to fill that void. I think most officials are just wanting it to kind of fade into the larger first response ecosystem in the city. But it will need some help to get there.

Miller: You noted in your recent article that previous Portland State University reports on the roll out and the functioning of Portland Street Response, they were presented at City Council in a very public way. That didn’t happen this time. Why not?

Zielinski: Yeah, this time it came just straight from Portland Street University. And I don’t have a great understanding of why. I didn’t get a clear answer from Commissioner Gonzalez as to why this wasn’t going to be before City Council. He really deferred to the Fire Bureau and said, “Let’s wait until what they have to say, until we hear what their public response is.”

Miller: And he runs the Fire Bureau, right?

Zielinski: Right. At the same time the Fire Bureau says “We’re not going to be issuing a response to the report.” It feels a lot like a game of hot potato.

Miller: One of the few recommendations in this new report that Commissioner Gonzalez seems open to is transferring Portland Street Response from the Fire Bureau to the Community Safety Division. What would that accomplish?

Zielinski: Yeah, I think the idea is that it would help resolve some of those reported conflicts between firefighters and PSR staff, just kind of give Portland Street Response a space to operate a little bit more smoothly without whatever conflicts might exist within the Bureau.

Miller: Looming in the background of all of this and basically almost any city government question we can imagine is a gigantic looming overhaul of the way city government works. Going from a relatively small number of commissioners to three times that amount and not having commissioners be in charge of bureaus, plus a city manager or a city administrator. What could all of that mean for the future of this program?

Zielinski: It’s really interesting. There are a lot of different theories. I think it could remove some of the political baggage from the program because it would live under an unelected city bureaucrat who’d be in charge of it, the city administrator, not a politician. Here’s how PSU researcher Greg Townley put it:

Greg Townley (recording): “But I do think that if in the new city, former city government, if they have a city administrator, it somewhat fulfills that function of not being quite so vulnerable to the whims of one elected official.”

Zielinski: And fire officials also told me that they think this restructure could help streamline the program’s funding.

Miller: So I wanna get back to the budget which you mentioned earlier because, even before we get to the new city structure, there are some major budget questions that you outlined in your recent article. What’s happening? What’s the situation right now?

Zielinski: Yeah, that’s a big question. So for the coming fiscal year which starts in July, Portland Street Response is mostly funded with just one-time dollars, meaning they won’t be available to help support the program in the following year. So the city doesn’t really have a clear plan for filling that coming funding gap. And one possibility for getting money through is a federal Medicaid grant. But the city still needs a fully staffed Portland Street Response to get those dollars, which kind of is antithetical to that option. So it’s unclear really what the long term funding option would be. The city does not have really the amount of money in their general fund to cover this every year.

Miller: Well, I mean, how serious is that? Is the program itself in danger of being shut down?

Zielinski: Not in the immediate future. I think there is a real interest from Commissioner Gonzalez and from leaders in the Fire Bureau that they want to keep this program going. They understand the role it plays and that it needs some room to grow. And I think we all, anyone who’s kind of understood how this program has rolled out, it’s only been around for a couple of years. There is space that needs to exist for it to really stretch its arms. But it really relies on these officials, who are saying that they’re gonna champion this program, to find that funding in the coming years. And we haven’t seen that yet, so it’ll really come down to budget season.

Miller: Alex, thanks very much.

Zielinski: Thank you.

Miller: Alex Zielinski is the Portland City Government Reporter for OPB.

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