Portland officials are zeroing in on what a new program intended to respond to low-priority calls involving people experiencing homelessness will look like.
At a City Hall meeting Thursday, commissioners accepted recommendations on the new program, which aims to provide a more compassionate response to people in crisis as well as free up emergency responders for life-threatening calls. The unit is slated to start answering 911 calls in the spring of 2020.
The program, officially called the Portland Street Response, will be based in Southeast Portland's Lents neighborhood, where the fire bureau says they've seen the number of calls swell in the last five years.
“Lents is the perfect place to roll out this pilot,” said City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who is spearheading the program and oversees the Portland Fire Bureau and the Bureau of Emergency Communications, two of the city agencies responsible for handling and answering 911 calls. “There are minimal community resources available in Lents, and ... call volume has increased by 20%.”
For comparison, the volume of 911 calls citywide has increased by 11% in the same time period, according to Robyn Burek, an analyst with Portland Fire and Rescue.
The pilot will consist of an EMS specialist and a mental health professional. The unit will respond to calls Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 6 pm., which Fire Chief Sarah Boone said is the bureau’s peak time for the non-emergency calls they receive involving people living on the streets
The director of Portland’s Bureau of Emergency Communication, Bob Cozzie, said the department is still designing training to help dispatchers identify what kind of calls are a good fit for the team and which ones are best left to police.
Cozzie said calls reporting someone in need of a welfare check, behaving erratically, or clearly under the influence of drugs and alcohol would likely go to the street response team. But they will not be dispatching the unit to any calls that could involve violence or someone considered suicidal.
Though the program is only supposed to last a year, Commissioner Chloe Eudaly said she was sure it will go citywide.
“This program is desperately needed and has been for decades,” Eudaly said. “This is a pilot program but is already a proven response, and I have the utmost confidence that a year from now we'll be here talking about expanding it.”