Portland Street Response expands citywide with new answer for mental health, addiction-related 911 calls

Starting Monday, people across Portland looking to assist someone in a mental health crisis have a new option: They can call 911 and ask for the Portland Street Response.

The unarmed emergency response program now serves the entire city, quadrupling the footprint of the program and bringing the police alternative to Portland’s entire 145 square miles.

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty speaks during a press conference regarding the Portland Street Response team, Feb. 16, 2021.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

The program, housed within the Portland Fire Bureau, dispatches a firefighter paramedic, a mental health crisis therapist and two community health workers to respond to emergency calls that don’t require a police response. The program started off in the Lents neighborhood in Southeast Portland a year ago and has been expanding methodically since. The program has covered 36 square miles in East Portland since November. Teams will now respond to calls citywide from 8 am to 10 pm

At a press conference Monday in front of downtown’s Fire Station 1, Portland leaders praised the expansion as necessary step to provide better outcomes for people experiencing a mental health crisis and reduce the heavy call load for the city’s public safety bureaus. Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, the architect behind the program, hailed Portland Street Response as the first major update to the city’s public safety system in over a century. Mayor Ted Wheeler said he believed it would allow police to “refocus” on violent criminals and beef up the city’s ability to address the mental health crises that play out every day on Portland’s streets.

“Sending the right responders to the right calls with the right training is the best way to meet the needs of those who are suffering on our streets,” Wheeler said. “The expansion of the Portland Street Response citywide is simply the right thing to do.”

Wheeler had voted alongside Commissioners Mingus Mapps and Dan Ryan last May to delay giving the program the money to go citywide. At the time, the trio said they wanted more data on the success of the program before providing the green light for an expansion. After a six-month evaluation, a team of researchers at Portland State University’s Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative recommended in October the program go citywide. Hardesty said she believed the program now had “100% support” from the entire city council.

While Monday served as the official start date, Portland Street Response manager Robyn Burek said teams had been quietly responding to citywide calls for the past few weeks.

The teams will continue to answer calls in which a person is potentially experiencing a mental health crisis or is intoxicated and does not have a visible weapon. The person must be outside or in an indoors space that is open to the public such as a lobby or a store. In its first year, Portland Street Response took over 1,000 calls of these types.

Program leaders have pushed to allow the teams to also respond to calls inside people’s homes, as well as those involving a risk of suicide. But that expansion is subject to bargaining with the union representing rank-and-file police officers, as the work would overlap with the responsibilities of Portland police.

The issue was not resolved in the most recent police contract, but Caryn Brooks, a spokesperson for Portland Street Response, said a committee has been formed with representatives from the police, Portland Street Response, and the Bureau of Emergency Communications to determine what types of calls the program should address. The committee will start meeting next week and must make recommendations to the bureau directors by the end of June.

Hardesty said she was already looking to the next phase of the expansion. The fire office has requested an additional $3.7 million as part of the next city budget to make the program available around the hour by October. Burek said that money would more than double the size of the program from 20 full time employees to 58.

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