Manager of Ore. city’s mental health emergency response program resigns
For the last two years, the Portland Street Response sent mental health workers and EMTs instead of police to people experiencing a mental health emergency
By Nicole Hayden
PORTLAND, Ore. — Robyn Burek, the program manager for Portland Street Response, announced her departure Tuesday morning.
Amid turmoil at the mental health emergency response program, which is housed in the Portland Fire Bureau, Burek has taken a job in the city auditor’s office. Her final day at Street Response will be July 6 and she will start at the auditor’s office July 10.
Burek confirmed her departure to The Oregonian/OregonLive but declined to comment further.
Burek, who has a graduate degree in family therapy and an MBA, led the program from its outset as a pilot in the Lents neighborhood to its city-wide expansion. In the past two years, the program has sent mental health workers and EMTs instead of armed police in response to people experiencing a mental health emergency.
The teams responded to nearly 7,400 calls in the past year, 98% of which had been traditionally handled by police.
When Rene Gonzalez, the new fire commissioner, took over, Portland Street Response workers said they felt less support and more concern for the future of the program. Gonzalez barred workers from handing out tents during the coldest months of the year and directed them to assist with city-ordered sweeps. Officials in the program worried about the reliability of long-term funding. And workers and some program advocates said they worried the mission of the program was swaying from its intent after Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, its biggest champion, lost to Gonzalez.
The city’s incoming fire chief Ryan Gillespie put a freeze on purchases, like clothes and food boxes, that workers say are needed to protect and build trust with potential clients. A hiring freeze also left Burek unable to fill vacancies. Gonzalez stalled the program from expanding to 24-hour operations, saying the program needs to be “right-sized” as kinks are worked out.
A recent study by Portland State University raised concerns about tensions between program staff and rank-and-file firefighters, concerns about how Gillespie’s and Gonzalez’s new policies could cause harm to the city’s most vulnerable residents and the need for the program to expand its hours of operation. Gonzalez dismissed its findings and said he didn’t have plans to bring it before City Council. In response, Portland State University made the report public on Tuesday.
A new program manager has not yet been announced.
“We have full confidence in Chief Gillespie’s leadership to select the next PSR manager who will ensure program health and compliance with city policies and procedures,” Gonzalez said in a statement.
Nicole Hayden reports on homelessness for The Oregonian/OregonLive. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Nicole_A_Hayden.