Portland Street Response launches, pairing medics with clinicians on mental health calls
The pilot program launched Tuesday after being delayed for more than a year
PORTLAND — Along Southeast Foster Road in Portland’s Lents neighborhood, a community of individuals experiencing homelessness camp along the road in their cars and RVs each night. Within their makeshift community, they have agreed to take care of each other and follow a set of understood rules: don’t let anyone sleep through cold nights without heat, give neighbors in need your extra handwarmers, don’t let women walk alone at night and share your cigarettes.
But there are certain challenges that are beyond their scope to handle even as good neighbors, such as mental health episodes or addressing deep-rooted individual trauma. Often those issues are a primary reason a person fell into homelessness in the first place or has struggled to get out of it.
“Mental health is definitely an issue out here with a lot of people suffering from schizophrenia and depression,” said Josh Westside, who has been homeless for about six years.
“Typically, police officers respond to issues like that, but now-a-days, people see a police officer and they get scared,” the 34-year-old added.
To address this need, a pilot program called Portland Street Response will launch in Lents on Tuesday. More than a year in the making, it will provide non-police assistance to people experiencing homelessness or a mental health crisis. The program will be run out of Portland’s fire and medical emergency agency.
The response team will include a paramedic, a mental health clinician and two community health workers. Instead of sending a police unit to calls about a well-being check or mental health crisis, the paramedic and mental health clinician will be dispatched first. If the individual expresses need for additional services such as shelter or housing, the community health workers will then be dispatched as well.
Police or an ambulance will not be summoned unless the incident escalates.
“This program will alter the way we do first response,” said Robyn Burek, the program’s manager. “The motivating factor for me is if we can save a life, if we can humanize this situation … and it also is an opportunity to reconcile things where local government has caused disproportionate harm to certain communities in terms of their response in the past, but we can course-correct here.”
ALARMING DATA PUSHES FOR CHANGE
The team was built in response to data uncovered by The Oregonian/OregonLive in 2018 that showed that 52% of police arrests in Portland involved an individual experiencing homelessness even though homeless individuals accounted for just 3% of the city’s population. A 2020 newsroom analysis found that has not fundamentally changed in the ensuing years.
Burek hopes the new team will be able to lessen the disproportionate criminal justice treatment of the city’s homeless population by providing a therapeutic non-police response and by connecting individuals to services to address the root of their homelessness.
The Portland Street Response team surveyed police and fire call data to determine where the majority of the city’s non-violent, non-emergency calls were clustered. The highest number of these calls were centered in the downtown area, followed by Lents.
The Portland City Council voted in 2019 to allocate the money to launch a pilot of the program each in 2020. But the launch was delayed until now. The council subsequently voted to authorize additional two-person teams to serve additional neighborhoods. But that, too, is now projected to happen more than a year behind schedule.
The city council initially heard the proposal for the program and approved, spending $500,000 to launch the pilot in November 2019. In June 2020, council increased that to $4.8 million annually.
Since the program is starting small, Lents was chosen as the pilot location as it will have a call load that will easier for the initial small team to handle. After six months, a second team will be added, Burek said. And after the first year, Burek is hopeful the program will expand to encompass the whole city.
“Lents was designated as the pilot location because it is not supported with many existing (homelessness) resources and services,” according to a statement released by Portland Street Response. “Additionally, the volume of mental and behavioral health calls in Lents is outpacing the growth of similar calls in other parts of the city.”
This new team will also impact the day-to-day function of Portland Fire & Rescue, which has seen an 11% increase in overall call volumes in the past five years. In Lents, overall calls increased 22%, according to Caryn Brooks, Portland Street Response communications manager.
Portland Street Response’s handling of designated calls will free up the fire department to respond more quickly to higher emergency medical situations, Brooks said.
The city also estimates Portland Street Response will help Portland Police Bureau reduce the number of calls they respond to in Lents by 15%.
The team will respond things like welfare checks for unsheltered individuals, de-escalation calls if someone is yelling or having a psychosis moment and substance-use related calls.
A DIRE NEED FOR MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES
Within her community of individuals sleeping in their cars and trailers, Ashlee Daley said many of her neighbors have ended up on the streets as a result of past trauma or other mental health issues.
Daley, 26, became homeless when she was 17 because she left home after experiencing sexual abuse.
“Those mental scars made me seek drugs back then,” she said. “It is not just in the homeless community, all over the country there is an addiction problem, and I believe often those who are addicted to something, whether it’s chocolate or meth, they are using it as a band-aid to a greater disease.”
Daley has witnessed too many acquaintances and friends spiral from the cycle of trauma and mental health issues, especially when people use substances to self-treat since mental health resources have historically been hard to access.
Raven Drake, an outreach worker for homeless services provider Street Roots, has canvassed the Lents neighborhood to inform people about the launch of Street Response.
“There is a desperate need for social services and mental health services because it is one of the largest struggles in the Lents community,” Drake said.
Aside from prior trauma an individual experiencing homelessness may have faced, the experience of living on the streets adds an additional layer.
“The houseless community lives in one of the most intense trauma environments you can thinks of,” Drake said. “The trauma they go through day-to-day of lacking resources, worrying about their daily survival, experiencing the loss of friends … it’s very combat oriented … it takes a toll on mental health, which is why we see so much mental breakdown.”
Sabina Urdes, Lents Neighborhood Association president, said she has been steering the association to be more empathetic and helpful to their neighbors experiencing homelessness. She said there are hundreds of individuals living along the Springwater Corridor Trail, along main roads and clustered near highway entrances.
“If our goal is to eliminate houselessness, I think it is counterintuitive to respond to these calls with law enforcement, which is what has been happening for years even though we know that the more interaction people have with law enforcement, the more barriers to housing they have,” Urdes said.
“Addressing the bigger causes of homelessness like equity, gentrification and lack of mental health care will take time,” she added. “So we need to meet people where they are and help them when they are in crisis now, and I believe this program will do that.”
(c)2021 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)