Aug 10, 2023 - Politics

Portland Street Response may get a new home

A man site at a table draped in a blue banner that reads Portland Street Response, under a white pop up tent that says Here to Help,  while a man with a bike reaches into. a cooler full of water bottles.

Portland Street Response doing outreach at a community wellness fair in the Lents neighborhood. Photo: Emily Harris/Axios

The politician in charge of the unarmed crisis response organization Portland Street Response wants to find it a new home, and funding that comes from somewhere other than the city.

Why it matters: While City Commissioner Rene Gonzalez signaled his commitment to the popular program in an interview with Axios this week, expanding it appears unlikely within the next year while officials sort out how to manage and pay for it.

Catch up quick: PSR was created in the wake of 2020 racial justice protests and after decades of Portland police using force against people with mental illness, which led to ongoing federal oversight.

Driving the news: Gonzalez cites three priorities for PSR before any expansion: stable funding from outside city coffers, making sure the program is following city purchasing policies and a clear understanding of what PSR should and shouldn't do.

  • "It grew really fast and with a lot of political interest," Gonzalez said. "It's kind of a startup, not used to rules."

State of play: Part of the program's approximately $10 million annual budget comes from COVID-era grants that expire next year. City officials are now scouting funding sources outside Portland — including Medicaid, Multnomah County and the state Legislature.

  • Medicaid could come with complicated billing and strings attached. While it might require PSR to expand to 24/7 service, which Gonzalez would back if required, he says that expansion doesn't look necessary based on when calls come in.
  • He already proposed that Multnomah County pick up part of the tab, an effort that went nowhere. He notes that the county is primarily responsible for public health.
  • Multnomah County declined to comment.

Between the lines: Right now, PSR is part of Portland's fire bureau, which is a bad cultural fit, according to a recent Portland State University evaluation. One option is to move it under police, something Gonzalez thinks makes sense logistically if not politically.

  • "I don't know that in Portland, putting them with police is viable, given the number of constituents out there that are very focused on PSR … as an alternative to police."

What they're saying: Supporters of Portland Street Response are clear that they want the program to thrive.

  • Having "an option beyond the police showing up in situations is always great," Stephen Green, executive director of Business for a Better Portland, whose board signed the petition to support PSR, told Axios.
  • Bryan Steelman, owner of ¿Por Qué No? Taquería on SE Hawthorne and N Mississippi, whose staff sometimes face people in crisis, told Axios in an email that while the program is "imperfect," it feels "like a great benefit to the energy and safety of the city" and he worries that politics might "stall it out."

The bottom line: Any PSR expansion could be punted until 2025, when sweeping changes to city government begin.

  • Right now, given questions about PSR's funding and mission, "it would be imprudent to hire additional staff at this time," wrote interim fire chief Ryan Gillespie in a response to the PSU evaluation.

Of note: PSR is trying to fill current positions; they're down to 36 staff from about 50 last year.

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