Multnomah County took its first step toward establishing a mental health resource center in downtown Portland.

County commissioners on Thursday approved a resolution that authorizes county staff to move forward with a negotiation process for a 24,833-square-foot historic warehouse to house the center.

The Bushong Building in Downtown Portland. 

The Bushong Building in Downtown Portland. 

Montoya Nakamura/Multnomah County

The county’s interest in the property, located at 333 SW Park Avenue, stems from a years-long hunt for a building that could fill a need for a centrally located, low-barrier mental health recovery center with transitional housing.

“A dedicated mental health shelter would be open 24 hours a day,” said Neal Rotman, Multnomah County’s interim Mental Health Division deputy director. “People would be engaged in services throughout the day, as well as [have] a safe place to sleep at night. And that’s something that we’re missing.” 

According to the county, the center would differ from existing mental health options like the Unity Center; it would provide transitional housing to people with behavioral health issues and connect them with sustained, peer-led treatment. That’s much different from acute, emergency care provided at the Unity Center.

Rotman said the housing piece is key for people with behavioral health issues, but transitional housing has been a missing piece of the county’s mental health services. The city and county have long struggled to house people who flooded out of institutions like the Oregon State Hospital after a policy shift to de-institutionalize the state’s mental health systems. That shift moved the focus from long-term psychiatric care to community mental health services.

“However, those resources were never really fully diverted,” said Sharon Meieran, an emergency room doctor and county commissioner who represents District 1. “People were let out of the institutions, but there wasn’t anything to catch them.”

The upshot was a game of whack-a-mole, according to Meieran, in terms of trying to connect people with services. With no dedicated mental health shelter in the state or city, coupled with Portland’s housing crunch, people in crisis often end up on the streets, she said.

“We’re very focused on de-institutionalization,” Rotman said. “The issue is: Does the housing exist for those people to move into?”

The purchase price for the building, which once served as a homeless shelter, is set at $4.3 million.

County staff began looking at the building in October. With the resolution passed, the county has 60 days to inspect and negotiate terms before deciding whether to move forward with a purchase.