News

Oregonian: Homeless Portlanders want mental health, crisis support instead of weapons in first responders
Author: Molly Harbarger
Posted: September 20, 2019

To read the original, visit the Oregonian.

A survey of people living on the street underscored Portland’s need for an alternative to police responding to low-level 911 calls — but who those first responders will be remains up in the air.

Portland State University researchers canvassed homeless camps and centers where people receive meals and services to find out what their experiences with police have been and what they would like to see instead.

The results will be used to help create Portland Street Response, the working name of program expected to divert calls for homelessness issues away from police. Street Roots, a nonprofit newspaper, helped lead the surveying effort, along with other homeless service providers. The report is available on the newspaper’s website.

Of the 184 people surveyed, 65% said they want a responder who fills the role of crisis counselor, mental health worker or peer support rather than a cop in a uniform. They don’t want every interaction with a first responder to include a check to see if they have warrants for their arrest.

Instead of a hospital or jail, they want more options for finding the help they need.

They said that when they have had positive interactions with police, it has mostly been when they felt listened to and were allowed to decide the kind of help they receive.

“If you ask anyone in the community, you’ll see their needs are not met,” said Vince Mosiello, who sells Street Roots newspapers and helped lead the canvassing.

Mosiello spoke at a press conference announcing the results, and said that his and other homeless people’s experiences show that the Portland Street Response effort is needed. They often feel like they are treated as less than human by Portland residents and first responders.

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty is leading a group of public and private leaders in public safety and homelessness services to figure out how to send first responders to calls about homelessness without defaulting to police. The group commissioned the study.

“When over half of the arrests in the city were of people who without being houseless wouldn’t have been arrested, we know we are wasting resources,” Hardesty said.

The Oregonian/OregonLive reported that 52% of all arrests in 2017 in the city were of homeless people. Street Roots used the statistic, as well as the newspaper’s own reporting, to call for the Portland Street Response effort.

As they consider a new program, officials have looked at Eugene’s CAHOOTS program, which pairs a crisis counselor with a medic. In a given year, the program’s two teams field an average of 20 percent of all calls to the 911 and non-emergency police numbers.

It works largely independently of police, with only 10% of CAHOOTS calls involving another public safety agency.

About 60% of all CAHOOTS’ clients are homeless, even though it was never meant to provide homelessness outreach. But the calls they respond to coincide with the area’s population of people who struggle to be able to pay rent.

Portland faces a similar issue in that a majority of the city’s 911 calls are about homelessness issues. Greg Townley, director of research for the Portland State University Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative, said that the survey results show that homeless people want Portlanders to be more judicious about what they call police for.

Hardesty echoed the idea that the Street Response effort should work in tandem with marketing about the cost of overusing the 911 system.

“911 is not who you call when you feel uncomfortable with what someone looks like,” Hardesty said. “911 is not who you call when someone puts a tent up across from your house.”

But before Portland’s Street Response program can launch, the pilot program must go to City Council in November. The mayor already set aside $500,000 to fund what will likely be a small, geographically bound version of an idea that could be scaled up if it is found effective.

Hardesty said that she doesn’t know what it will look like yet, or where it will be housed. However, she oversees the fire and emergency dispatch departments, which suggests that the program might live under one of those umbrellas.