Politics

Dozens of organizations urge Portland City Council to reinvest in Street Response

By Alex Zielinski (OPB)
July 17, 2023 4 p.m.
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

Dozens of Portland nonprofits, businesses, advocacy groups and state lawmakers are urging the city’s elected officials to fully fund and expand Portland Street Response, the city program that sends mental health workers — instead of police — to 911 calls related to people having behavioral health crises outside.

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The coalition released a petition Monday calling on Portland City Council to take its nascent alternative first response program seriously.

“As community members who support the expansion of our public safety system to include effective unarmed alternatives to police such as Portland Street Response, we are asking the Portland City Council to stick to their promise: that they champion and expand Portland Street Response,” the petition from the newly formed group Friends of Portland Street Response said.

This coalition is composed of 40 organizations and local figures, including Sisters of the Road, Think Real Estate, Urban League of Portland, Blanchet House and Revant Optics. The petition also has the backing of Portland-area elected officials, like Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt, and state representatives Khanh Pham, Rob Nosse Maxine Dexter, and Lisa Reynolds. They’re united in their support of Portland Street Response. The program was established by Portland City Council in 2020 as a pilot program within Portland Fire & Rescue, and has since grown to respond to emergencies citywide.

The letter comes after a tumultuous few months for the program, which saw leadership churn, staff morale tank, and financial uncertainty.

In January, City Commissioner Rene Gonzalez was appointed to oversee Portland Fire & Rescue after defeating former fire commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty. Hardesty spearheaded the launch of Portland Street Response at the city, and ensured the program had the funding and support needed to grow in recent years.

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Gonzalez cautiously pumped the brakes on this work after entering office, first by ordering a hiring freeze across Portland Fire & Rescue and then restricting Portland Street Response staff from distributing tents to clients experiencing homelessness. Due to the staff shortages, Portland Street Response was unable to complete a planned expansion to 24/7 operation at the start of the year. This shortage has also kept the program from qualifying for federal grant dollars that could ensure long-term funding, which the program currently lacks.

In June, the inaugural manager for Portland Street Response resigned, further stoking unrest among staff.

Monday’s petition points to these issues, and others, as problems all Portland City Council members should urgently address.

“It is clear that this incredibly popular, effective, and desperately needed program is now at risk,” the letter reads. “As friends of Portland Street Response, we are united in our unequivocal support for the original goals of PSR and the specific actions needed to restore and support the program.”

These obstacles come during a period of measured success for the program: A recent analysis by Portland State University found that the program has met its intended goal to reduce police officer workloads and steer people with mental health needs away from jail. But this news received little recognition in City Hall.

Laura Golino de Lovato is the director of Northwest Pilot Project, a nonprofit that offers housing assistance to older low-income adults that has signed in support of the petition. She said her staff and clients have both found Portland Street Response to be invaluable when clients have experienced mental health crises. She doesn’t understand why city leadership doesn’t appear to see the program’s value.

“It seems like there’s already been sort of a predetermination of not wanting to support [Portland Street Response],” de Lovato said. “That seems a very deliberate and intentional way of wanting to make the program go away.”

De Lovato said she hopes the petition demonstrates to council members how respected and supporting Portland Street Response is across the city — and, ideally, inspires action.

“City Council is really missing a chance to be bold and to engage with the community to come up with a solution,” she said. “I wish that they would see that that’s an opportunity to really change Portland for the better.”

The group plans on circulating the petition to collect additional signatories before delivering it to Portland City Council.

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