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Should the Portland Fire Bureau or a contracted nonprofit operate the CAHOOTS-style homelessness initiative?

SCREENSHOT - A local marketing agency recently released a video calling for the Wapato Jail to be repurposed as a community wellness center. City and county officials are hailing progress on a nascent initiative to send someone other than police to respond to 911 calls regarding Portland's homeless population — an effort dubbed Portland Street Response.

But as a work group meets to craft a pilot program to test out the concept, a potential area of disagreement — who will run it — is headed to the Portland City Council in November.

Portland's latest effort to help the people living on its streets was sparked by the success of a nonprofit-run program in Eugene founded in 1988 that handles nearly a fifth of the city's 911 calls. Called Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, or CAHOOTS, it does so by sending out a medic teamed with a behavioral health expert in a van to help people in need.

Advocates say plugging a similar model into 911 response in Portland could help reduce the vast number of police encounters with homeless people — a figure that constitutes about half the total number of arrests by Portland police, according to data processed by The Oregonian/OregonLive.

At a news conference Thursday, Sept. 19, to discuss research into how the program in Portland should operate, Portland city Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty — the idea's most vocal champion on the City Council — said, "The fact that first responders are responding to so many calls that have absolutely nothing to do with criminal behavior is a disgrace and a waste of public safety resources."

After Mayor Ted Wheeler and Hardesty visited the Eugene program in January, both supported setting aside $500,000 in the city budget for a pilot program in Portland.

Street Roots, the nonprofit Portland newspaper that employs many vendors who are homeless, focused on the CAHOOTS program in its March 15 issue and analyzed which existing program could handle the job. Its conclusion: the fire bureau's one-person Community Health Assessment Team, which works with homeless people.

SCREENSHOT - A local marketing agency recently released a video calling for the Wapato Jail to be repurposed as a community wellness center. And while some are pushing for the city to simply use the CAHOOTS model, Hardesty says the city needs to come up with its own version of the program. Specifically, the city is considering whether to have the Portland Fire Bureau, which Hardesty oversees, manage the program — instead of having a third-party contractor run it.

Indeed, a work group of social service agencies and city and county officials is planning on submitting two recommendations for the City Council to consider in November: one operated by the fire bureau, and one by a contracted nonprofit.

Among those pushing the city to simply adopt CAHOOTS instead of going its own way, however, is Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland.

"We don't need to reinvent the wheel," he told the Portland City Council at a Sept. 4 public meeting. "The most valuable and overlooked quality of the Eugene model is that the service is managed by an independent third party, not a city bureau or department, not the police, not the fire department. That really won't work."

Hardesty, however, immediately pushed back.

The Eugene program, she said, "has a lot of things that are very positive about it. But as you may know, it took them 30 years to actually create the model that they have today. We in Portland don't have that long to wait to get to a model that actually is intentional about sending the right first responder to the right incident at the right time."

Last week, at the Thursday news conference, Portland State University released a survey conducted in conjunction with Street Roots, which found that 184 homeless people surveyed strongly support a nonpolice response to some calls, one that could include medical support as well as connections to other services.

Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran, an emergency room doctor who has been deeply involved in mental health reforms and the street-response discussions, is sympathetic to the idea that the Eugene model benefits from relationships forged over decades. So simply dropping it into Portland's system of 911 response and homeless and medical services may not be as simple as it seems.

But given the importance of the program under consideration, Meieran said, "we have to get it right." She said she is happy that the process is underway, and she isn't wedded to any particular outcome. "I just want to do what the right thing is."

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