Portland City Council is in agreement: The city needs a new way to respond to emergency calls involving people who are experiencing homelessness. To that end, the city allotted $500,000 in July for a program to address low-severity emergency calls.

Vendors for Street Roots, a weekly newspaper that focuses on homelessness and poverty, in Portland made signs in support of a new program to address low-severity emergency calls involving people experiencing homelessness.

Vendors for Street Roots, a weekly newspaper that focuses on homelessness and poverty, in Portland made signs in support of a new program to address low-severity emergency calls involving people experiencing homelessness.

Rebecca Ellis/OPB

Now, city officials are trying to home in on what an improved response to emergency calls would look like.

A report released by the city Thursday details the results of a survey of 180 Portlanders who are living in the city’s shelters, streets and camps about who they would want to see arriving after a call for service.

The majority of those interviewed said they believed police officers should be present for calls involving crimes, such as theft, robbery and harassment. 

But for lower-level incidents, such as calls concerning a homeless person camping or loitering, drug overdoses, or mental health crises, respondents believed no officers should be present.

Instead, many survey respondents said they’d like to see mental health professionals and social workers respond to these low-level calls. Many would want an insurance that their IDs would not be run for a warrant, and would want the professional to provide food, water, medical care and hygiene projects.

Portland commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said the commission is still in the “information gathering stage” and it doesn’t know what the pilot program will look like. But there would likely be less police involvement and more of an emphasis on mental health professionals.

“The fact that first responders are responding to so many calls that have absolutely nothing to do with criminal behavior is a disgrace and a waste of public safety resources,” Hardesty said.

Mayor Ted Wheeler said he has considered Eugene’s Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets system as a potential model. Eugene maintains a 24/7 intervention service, which dispatches one medic and one mental health professional to calls reporting a person in crisis.

A Portland State University report released in August estimated that 38,000 people were homeless in the Portland metro in 2017.

Final recommendations for a pilot project will be presented to the city council in November.