My View: Let's be smart about how we expand Portland Street Response
In late 2019, Portland's City Council unanimously and enthusiastically approved a game-changing plan to create a new branch for our city's first responder system called Portland Street Response. The program is currently operating as a one-year pilot in the Lents neighborhood.
The idea behind this new service is: instead of sending armed police officers to respond to 911 calls involving a houseless person experiencing a mental health crisis in a public space, the city will send out a team of mental health specialists, who will try to connect the person in crisis to the services they need to heal.
The Lents pilot project is focused on helping to support our houseless neighbors and establish practices and systems that can expand citywide. This month, City Council followed through on that commitment to smart program design by funding an independent evaluation of the Portland Street Response Program that will be conducted by Portland State University. Our investment in program evaluation is just the latest step this Council has taken to implement the 2019 city action which created the Portland Street Response. In part, that report read:
"Because this is a pilot program, it will be flexible, making programmatic changes based on what is learned in the field to constantly improve throughout the pilot period. This means that, at the end of the year, the program may look different than it did at its initiation. ... A final report will be issued at the conclusion of the 12-month pilot, with recommendations for next steps based on what we have learned."
Every member of Portland's City Council is committed to expanding the Portland Street Response program as quickly as possible. But some also think that before we expand Portland Street Response from one neighborhood to 95 neighborhoods, the city should make sure we have the right model — one that works — by thinking through questions like these:
Should Portland Street Response only serve the houseless community, or should PSR also respond to housed Portlanders who are going through a mental health crisis? As we grow this new service, should we extend its hours of operation first, or should we expand to new neighborhoods first? Should Portland Street Response staff be sent to 911 calls involving a person who appears to be going through a mental health crisis and is reported to be armed with a gun?
We can answer those questions through careful program evaluation. But so far, Portland Street Response has been up and running for fewer than three months. The program has responded to about 100 calls. To put that into context, our 911 operators answer nearly 1 million calls a year. Evaluating the Portland Street Response program with that amount of data is inadequate. As such, expanding staff dramatically inside Portland Fire & Rescue for Portland Street Response goes against the promises made when the pilot was visioned and funded.
While we appreciate U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer and Sen. Ron Wyden simultaneously advocating for CAHOOTS and Portland Street Response, we want to point out a significant distinction between the two programs. CAHOOTS is run by a nonprofit community health clinic and Portland Street Response is a function of the city of Portland's Fire Department. We should take time to weigh the tradeoffs of these different approaches and keep our focus on results for our residents.
Eugene is a city of roughly 156,000 residents covering over 44 square miles. Expenses for CAHOOTS' 24/7 response were a little over $1.5 million in 2019. In 2020, CAHOOTS arrived at 15,879 crisis incidents.
By contrast, Portland Street Response currently covers about three square miles and has a population of just over 20,000 people. The Mayor's Proposed Budget dedicates nearly $1 million to continue a pilot which currently runs during weekdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Our mindful, data-driven approach to achieve population-level results is driven by our desire to see this program succeed. We must get this right.
We are committed to good government and promising community practices to leverage the Portland Street Response program for long-term success. If Portland Street Response succeeds, we will revolutionize the way our city serves our most vulnerable — which includes our houseless and mental-health-challenged neighbors.
Success requires us to be methodical and ensure that the program's services are effectively aligned with the county and other private partners. The policy decisions about how best to do this are not without risk and require the deliberation and responsibility of the full City Council. The city does not need another quickly built, siloed and failed program. Successful expansion of the program requires a solid plan for strategy, governance and implementation.
We look forward to reviewing the six-month report on this pilot in August, and the 12-month report in March of next year. These check-ins will help us make good choices about full, permanent implementation. Along the way we'll be working with the Portland Street Response Project Manager Robyn Burek, Community Safety Transition Director Mike Myers, the city's Chief Administrative Officer Tom Reinhart, and others to properly address these considerations.
We're reminded of the proverb "if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together."
Ted Wheeler is in his second term as mayor of Portland. Commissioners Mingus Mapps and Dan Ryan were elected to the Portland City Council in 2020.
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