PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Multnomah County’s Behavioral Health Resource Center in downtown Portland reopened on Monday after a two-week closure to train staff — as well as investigate allegations of “inappropriate relationships” and on-site drug use from contracted employees, the county announced.

The internal investigations looked into allegations of inappropriate behavior at the center among security staff and other contract employees, the county said. Officials clarified that the investigations did not involve county employees or clients.

While the investigations are ongoing, the county says it’s “satisfied the Center can reopen.”

“Closing the Resource Center was a difficult, but necessary step to get to the heart of this complaint, resolve any issues, and set expectations for the high level of service we expect from our contractors going forward,” said Chair Jessica Vega Pederson. 

The county contracts with the Mental Health & Addiction Association of Oregon to operate the day center and hired DPI Security for safety services and Northwest Success for custodial services.

On the night of March 29, a Health Department manager received a complaint “raising several issues at the Center, including that staff from each of the three contractors was involved in inappropriate relationships with other staff,” the county announced on April 17.

The county did not detail the alleged inappropriate relationships.

Additionally, the complaint claimed that contracted staff, — from an unidentified contractor –“may have used ‘powder’ – an illicit drug – on site,” according to Multnomah County.

The next day, the county says it contacted the contracted business about the allegations and that MHAAO began its own investigation with an outside contractor that day and tried to identify training gaps.

Multnomah County says it also requested investigations from the other two contractors.

The county stated due to the nature of the allegations, it did not publicly disclose details of the late March complaint “to preserve the integrity of the investigations and to ensure the allegations could be credibly reviewed.”

Officials report Multnomah County’s Workplace Security team reviewed security camera footage and did a floor-by-floor search of the center but did not find drugs or paraphernalia.

On April 7, DPI Security told the county that a security employee admitted to using cocaine and marijuana onsite, outside of the presence of clients. The county says the employee was immediately fired after they made the admission.

Based on the allegations of “inappropriate relations” and on-site drug use, the county directed DPI Security to replace all of its center staff. However, DPI Security claimed it did not have enough staff for the replacement, so the county switched to Northwest Enforcement Inc., which will provide security moving forward, officials said.

“It’s critical that this Center has the security partners we need to ensure the BHRC is a safe and welcoming environment for participants and staff,’’ said Chief Operating Officer Serena Cruz. 

The county says the two-week closure additionally provided time to “further enhance” employee training and standard operating procedures.

This included a 90-hour training program on peer services including ethics training and employees agreeing to MHAAO’s Code of Conduct on expectations of when to call law enforcement, administer Narcan and de-escalation training.

The center is a peer-led model employed by others with lived experience to help those experiencing chronic homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse. Peer Support Specialists use trauma-informed practices and have certification requirements, the county said.

The county says the goal of the center is to “offer immediate assistance through hygiene services and other resources and build relationships to help stabilize and eventually house people who currently fall outside most systems.”

The downtown Portland center is open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. with an average of 1,200 visits per week, according to Multnomah County. Since December 5, 2022, Multnomah County reported 17,208 visits.

The county also revealed that MHAAO reported 252 “incidents” since the center’s opening “ranging from mild when staff had to redirect a client’s behavior, to extreme when someone was acting in a way that violated the code of care.”

In March, contracted staff managed 25 separate 911 calls and reported 14 incidents in which someone was experiencing an acute mental health crisis along with 62 instances where a participant asked to leave because of behavior. Multnomah County says incident response has improved with increased triage, contractor collaboration and communication.

Multnomah County has plans to add additional behavioral health services in spring 2023 including 33 shelter beds and 19 beds for bridge housing. The county says the temporary closure is not expected to delay the additions.

“The nonprofit MHAAO is one of Oregon’s oldest and largest peer-run agencies with over a decade of experience providing trauma-informed, culturally responsive peer support services across the tri-county area,” said Janie Gullickson, Executive Director at MHAAO.

Gullickson added, “MHAAO leaders immediately responded to the County’s concerns and launched an internal investigation led by an outside contractor. While the investigation is ongoing, our staff has fully cooperated with the investigation, fully participated in the training and have willingly signed attestations of professional codes of conduct.”

“While this is a new undertaking in our community, we are up to this task and are committed to continued learning and course correction. We appreciate our collaboration with the County and will continue to strive for excellence in our service to the community.”

The closure also allowed the county to make physical security improvements to the five-story center – installing more security cameras inside the building, adding window protection, and removing doors on the third-floor dorms “per operator request for safety.” The county says more work is underway to install motion detectors to potentially prevent fatal overdoses in restrooms and showers.

The center is reopening at reduced capacity, now offering peer and hygiene services for 25 people at a time. The county says it will add medical care including a county community health nurse and a mobile medical clinic once a day, starting in May.

“Knowing you are not alone; connecting to a community of support; and having someone with lived experience who can build on conversations about recovery, eventually leading to goals and plans, are some of the most powerful aspects of low-barrier, peer-driven models,” said Thomas Bialozor, director of the Behavioral Health Division.