City Reveals Proposal for New Homeless First Response Pilot Program

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City Reveals Proposal for New Homeless First Response Pilot Program
by Alex Zielinski

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KATHLEEN MARIE / MERCURY STAFF

The details of a new emergency response system meant to reduce Portland officers’ time spent following up on low-level 911 calls have begun to crystalize.

A report released this afternoon by City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty’s office offers a primer on how a year-long Portland Street Response (PSR) pilot program might operate.

PSR was initially pitched to the city by the nonprofit Street Roots as a way to reverse Portland Police Bureau’s (PPB) trend of arresting a disproportionate number of houseless people for low-level offenses by dispatching mental health experts, social workers, or physicians to certain 911 calls. In June, Portland City Council earmarked $500,000 to create and run a PSR pilot program, but asked to see a preliminary plan on the new program before it began. Today’s recommendations will need City Council’s approval before going forward.

The new report, based on months of outreach, research, and brainstorming by a group of some fifty stakeholders, suggests the pilot program be housed in Portland Fire and Rescue, a bureau overseen by Hardesty. It recommends the two-person PSR team be comprised of Tremaine Clayton, an Emergency Medical Services (EMS) specialist for the Fire Bureau, and a yet-to-be-identified crisis worker.

The report suggests that, for the duration of this one-year pilot, the team will only be responding to calls coming from a limited area spanning the Lents Neighborhood (also called “Fire Management Area 11”). Operators will receive extensive training prior to PSR’s kick-off to know when and how to direct 911 calls to PSR staff.

And the report suggests there should be limits to who PSR will be dispatched to. It recommends PSR only respond to calls about people outside who appear passed out or agitated, people in need of an in-person mental health check-up, or people who need assistance accessing social services. It also suggests PSR be deployed as backup during calls where police officers or firefighters are the first to respond.

The report recommends PSR staff should not respond to calls when the subject has known access to weapons, is suicidal, or is being violent toward others.

The single PSR van should contain standard first responder equipment, as well as food, water, hand warmers, and blankets for people the team comes in contact with.

Kristin Johnson, a policy advisor to Hardesty, says the PSR team will be instructed to take as long as they need to effectively address an incident. In Eugene, staff for CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets)—a 30-year-old street response program that inspired PSR—told Johnson that their calls usually last between 20 and 40 minutes.

Hardesty and Mayor Ted Wheeler will present these recommendations to the rest of City Council on Thursday, November 21. If approved by a council vote, the proposed plan should be up and running by spring 2020. Johnson doesn’t expect the pilot will need any additional funding before the city’s fiscal year ends in June.

Staff will update City Council on the program’s success six months after it begins, using data collected and evaluated with help from Portland State University’s Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative. In a press conference Thursday, Hardesty acknowledged that the work has just begun.

“When Portland Street Response starts, that doesn’t mean that all of the problems that we have will magically disappear,” Hardesty said. “We will be monitoring [PSR]… we want to do it right. We want to reduce harm. We want to take a humanistic approach to folks who are living on our street.”

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