Portland officials support slow, 'methodical' expansion of mental health response pilot

Commissioners debated how much funding to allocate to the program, which dispatches a paramedic and social worker to some calls

Shane Dixon Kavanaugh

PORTLAND — Portland Commissioner Dan Ryan said Thursday he wants to slowly expand the city’s experimental new program to dispatch a non-police response to people experiencing homelessness or a mental health crisis.

That position, which Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Mingus Mapps also support, effectively thwarts Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty’s attempt to immediately provide funding to expand the program — known as Portland Street Response — six-fold. Hardesty oversees the Portland fire bureau, which operates the program.

“We all want a citywide first responder program to meet the needs of our houseless neighbors experiencing mental health crises,” Ryan told The Oregonian/OregonLive in a statement.

“Before we expand the Portland Street Response pilot to operate citywide, we need to complete the natural cycle of any pilot program: to learn what is working and what isn’t, to make improvements where needed, and to ensure the pilot is ready to be scaled.”

The city launched the program as a small pilot in the Lents neighborhood early this year. The program sends a team of one paramedic and one social worker to assist those in crisis who are not believed to be a public safety threat, offering an unarmed alternative to a uniformed officer arriving on scene.

The pilot, staffed by four frontline workers plus a supervisor, covers three square miles.

Wheeler and the City Council’s four commissioners say they want to see the program expand to the rest of the city. But there are competing visions for how quickly that should occur.

The mayor proposed last week that in the coming fiscal year, the city spend nearly $1 million to keep the Lents team at work. But he said the city should wait until an unspecified future time to begin spending another $2.6 million held in check to expand the Portland Street Response program.

Hardesty wants all the money to be made available at the outset, given that the City Council voted unanimously last June to reallocate $4.8 million from the Portland Police Bureau budget to the non-police response team.

Proponents of Wheeler’s go-slow approach say they want a chance to evaluate the pilot’s call volume, the community’s experience with the team and other metrics before attempting to scale the program citywide.

Hardesty plans to submit an amendment to the mayor’s proposed budget that would immediately provide the full funding for Portland Street Response, an approach that Commissioner Carmen Rubio also supports.

Staffers in Hardesty’s office said Tuesday they were confident they’d have the support of the council, but Wheeler and Mapps were on record for a slower rollout and Ryan’s announcement Thursday appears to align with them.

Hardesty’s proposed amendment, which has not been finalized, would fund a staff of 22 and operate up to six teams around the clock citywide, according to her office.

Her phased citywide rollout would begin responding to calls in March 2022, according to her plan, which has also earned the backing of Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D- Portland) and Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden as well as some homeless advocates.

On Wednesday night, more than two dozen people spoke in favor of Hardesty’s plan at a public hearing for the city’s budget.

Should Ryan ultimately oppose her amendment, it would represent the second time he would cast a controversial centrist vote to thwart a Hardesty public safety initiative.

Last fall, he was viewed as likely to provide a crucial third vote on a measure pushed by Hardesty to slash the police bureau’s budget — previously cut by more than $15 million in June — by an additional $18 million.

His decision against the Nov. 5 effort outraged a number of progressives and police reform advocates, some of whom marched to his home that evening and damaged the property. Others subsequently began organizing what they say will be a recall campaign against him this summer.

Another potential flashpoint with Portland Street Response revolves around its employees’ status.

Currently, some response team members are unionized fire bureau employees, an approach Hardesty would like to see continue as the program grows. But the mayor’s office has said that it’s also worth exploring program models that use contracted workers from non-profits who would receive less pay and benefits than public employees, saving the city money.

A preliminary analysis by Tom Rinehart, a longtime Wheeler ally and the city’s chief administrative officer, found that a city employee model would cost between $4 million and $8 million a year more than one that paid contracted workers an annual salary of $55,000, documents show.

Hardesty’s office said that switching to a contract worker model could set a citywide program back months or even years.

The five-person Lents team has been in operation since mid-February, leaving roughly $3.6 million the council authorized last June unspent. They have responded to just 100 calls, fewer than two a day, according to the program’s online dashboard.

The program is required to submit a progress report to the City Council in mid-August, six months after its launch. According to the mayor’s office, the City Council can vote to authorize additional funding set aside for the program at any time.

Issues such as response times, program use by community members, 911 procedures and the categorization of which calls are assigned to receive the non-police response all merit further study before the program is expanded, the mayor’s office said.

Ryan said taking careful, deliberate approach is key to the program’s success.

“We must continue to build with persistence and a methodical focus,” he said. “We have to get this right.”


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