Aug 4, 2023 - Politics

Future of Portland Street Response hangs in the balance

Photo illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios. Photo: Emily Harris/Axios

Portland's unarmed crisis response team, Portland Street Response, is facing an uncertain future.

State of play: There's been a steady stream of recent headlines questioning whether there's enough political support for the 2-year-old program to succeed or whether it will fall apart.

Why it matters: PSR made a significant change in how Portland responds to people in crisis in public when it launched as a neighborhood pilot program in 2021.

  • The program is now caught up in wider debates about the right carrot-or-stick balance that's most effective at helping those in need and reducing the frequency of crises on Portland's streets.

Driving the news: Supporters who are concerned about the program's future have collected more than 10,000 signatures since mid-July, urging Portland City Council to help champion and expand it.

  • They want enough funding so PSR can operate around the clock, and want city officials to reverse earlier decisions that staff felt didn't help their work.
  • Those decisions include directing PSR staff to be on hand when homeless camps are cleared and ending their option to hand out tents — both of which staff say breach the trust they try to build with people in need.

Catch up fast: PSR officially began serving all areas of Portland daily between 8am and 10pm last year.

  • From about 50 total staff, small teams of counselors and health workers are dispatched on 911 or non-emergency calls about people experiencing mental health crises or who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
  • The street teams are only sent to situations that don't appear violent.

The latest: A recent evaluation of the program by Portland State University shows that PSR teams are handling thousands of calls that formerly would have gone to police, plus connecting dozens of people to needed long-term services.

  • Yes, but: The same report warned that a variety of factors could hinder its success, such as too few staff, a need for clearer protocols and cultural "misalignment" between PSR and Portland Fire & Rescue, where PSR is housed.

What they're saying: One Fire & Rescue staffer told PSU researchers that seeing PSR staff give out food or other items "seems like they're just giving stuff away to a group of people that we predominantly view as just taking and not giving back to society."

  • "What's seen as enabling by some people … Portland Street Response views that as the way they connect with people," lead PSU evaluator Greg Townley told Axios.

By the numbers: Between April 2022 and March of this year — the first year Portland Street Response operated citywide — they handled over 7,400 calls.

  • That reduced the share of behavioral health calls police handled by 19% during the hours PSR was running, according to the PSU evaluation.
  • "We would love it if they take all the mental health calls," an unidentified police staffer told researchers, according to the evaluation.

What's next: What questions do you want answered about Portland Street Response? We're talking to officials in charge and others next week, and will put your questions to them. Email us at [email protected].

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