In 2011, an African-American man named Fletcher Nash walked up to Portland Police officer Stacey Dunn to ask for help. Years later, both of them can still recall the moment.

“I remember it distinctly. He was pushing a grocery cart, and had recycling cans and bottles, and had his worldly possessions in the cart,” Dunn says.

“I happened to see her one day, getting a cup of coffee, and I flagged her down,” Nash says. “I was like, hey, I need some help.”

At the time, Nash had been living on the streets for about two years, struggling with a cocaine addiction. He’d seen Dunn’s photograph in a story about a program funded by the police that helped frequently arrested people get housing and addiction treatment.

“I got tired of it,” says Nash. “I wanted to change, but I didn’t know how to do it.”

Fletcher Nash

Fletcher Nash

Central City Concern

Dunn was assigned to a special police division called the Service Coordination Team, which focuses on preventing crime by connecting people to housing and drug treatment. Dunn pulled up Nash’s arrest record, and told him she could help refer him to a program called Housing Rapid Response. It targets homeless adults with addictions who are frequently in contact with the police and the justice system.

“I kind of joke with people, for the first time, having a drug arrest turned out to be a good thing,” Nash says.

Shortly after, Nash met with a counselor with Central City Concern, which placed him in transitional housing.

“That kind of tilted the scales,” he says. “Having my home became more important than using drugs, and they kind of weaned me into treatment.”

Today, after years of hard work, Nash has a steady job in the human resources department at Central City Concern. He rents an apartment in Beaverton, where he enjoys the library and farmers market.

Nash is one of the most noteworthy success stories of the addiction treatment and housing program that has served about 1,600 homeless adults in the last decade, funded largely by the Portland Police Bureau.

The program isn’t cheap. The bureau has proposed paying Central City Concern $1.7 million for the Housing Rapid Response program in the upcoming year. But the bureau argues that the program helps police avoid the costs of arrests and jail time racked up by repeat offenders.

“It costs a lot more money to put people through the criminal justice system than it does to get people clean and sober,” says Dunn, who’s now a detective. “These are people who are arrested over decades repeatedly, sometimes two and three times a day. Minor crimes, but it just takes a lot of time.”

A Long History

The program began in 2005 as a collaboration between the Portland Police, Multnomah County, Central City Concern and Volunteers of America.

It was initially met with skepticism by public defenders, many of whom viewed it as more of a targeted crackdown on repeat offenders than as a helping hand.

“We were concerned that there was some secret list that was being used as a reason to stop and arrest people,” says Lane Borg, the executive director of Metropolitan Public Defenders.

But Borg says over time the program has evolved, and so has his opinion of it.

“This program now feels more like they’ve put the social service ahead of prosecution,” he says. “They’re primarily looking at a service delivery plan for people in need.”

The program provides beds and treatment to about 80 people at any given time, and serves about 150 a year, according to Central City Concern. The Service Coordination Team selects people for the program on a weekly basis based on referrals from police officers, parole officers, defense attorneys and local hospitals. Participation for people referred into the program is voluntary.

The program now receives more than 900 referrals a year — far more than it can serve.

“There’s always a waiting list, 10 to 15 people waiting to get in weekly,”says Sean Christian, an officer with the Service Coordination Team.

The criteria for being selected include homelessness, addiction and repeated contacts with law enforcement. One recent candidate had been arrested 91 times over seven years, according to Christian. The program excludes people with convictions for some serious crimes, such as arson and sex crimes.

Participants can chose initially whether they want to go into transitional housing that requires them to be sober, or they can opt to start in “treatment readiness” units, where sobriety isn’t necessary.

They receive immediate services like health care, addiction treatment and group therapy. Over the longer term, case workers help people to find permanent housing, to develop job skills and to search for work. Many participate in a program, called Clean and Safe, where they are paid to clean litter and graffiti in the central city.

Data on the Housing Rapid Response program’s success rate is hard to come by, but Central City Concern says about two-thirds of clients are able to stay housed within 12 months of when they receive a permanent placement, and those who remain housed are very rarely re-arrested.

Controversy Authorizing Changes

This year, the police bureau quietly proposed making several major changes to the program. Those include setting aside more beds for women (to date, 80 percent of the participants are male, due in part to limited space for women), and including suboxone, a newer drug used to treat opiate addiction.

The bureau also proposed spending $480,000 to reserve six mental health stabilization beds from Central City Concern.

Officer Christian says that in the past, the Housing Rapid Response program has generally not worked with people experiencing severe mental health crises, though many participants do have some mental health problems.

Treating people in mental health crisis was too challenging, given the program’s group housing and therapy model. The six new beds will give the police’s behavioral health unit a place to send people in crisis with co-existing mental health disorders and drug and alcohol use.

At Wednesday’s meeting, members of the city council withheld their approval of the program’s 2015-2016 grant, and appeared to be caught off guard by the changes, in particular the bureau’s decision to end its contract with Volunteers of America.

“I’m not prepared to vote on this today, and I was not briefed on this, either,” said Commissioner Nick Fish.

Volunteers of America helped found the program, and has been a key partner. Portland Police say that it was more cost effective to work exclusively with Central City Concern, due in part to the fact that Volunteers of America was not able to get Medicaid reimbursement for its services.

“The savings from that is what is allowing us to get the additional treatment options that we’ve added,” says Lt. Tasha Hager with the police bureau.

At the request of commissioners Nick Fish and Amanda Fritz, the council delayed its vote authorizing the program. The council may take the issue up again in a work session Thursday.