PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Portland Street Response, which began as a pilot project in the greater Lents area in February 2021, will expand to city-wide coverage on March 28.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, Fire Chief Sara Boone and Portland Street Response Program Manager Robyn Burek held a news conference Monday morning to celebrate and announce the expansion.
“The expansion of the Portland Street response citywide is simply the right thing to do. We want to help people and meet them where they are immediately and with the tools that they need,” Burek said. “Portland Street Response’s data-driven approach ensures that we can now respond to calls across the entire city of Portland. This expansion means that all Portland can benefit from this innovative program.”
Portland Street Response is part of Portland Fire & Rescue’s Community Health Division. The unarmed responders handle behavioral and mental health crisis calls that are not life-threatening.
About 65% of calls to the program in the first year involved homeless clients.
Creating an unarmed first-response team was a goal of Hardesty’s before she took office in January 2019. In her first year in office, City Council created a special contingency fund that helped plant the seed for the current program, which started in February 2021.
“I couldn’t have imagined that just a few short years later, I wouldn’t be standing here in front of you today, talking about this expansion,” Hardesty said, who said the expansion received full support from City Council.
However, Street Response did face budgeting hurdles in May 2021, when Portland Fire & Rescue requested $4.2 million to expand the team citywide and Wheeler’s proposed budget included only $978,000 to fund the program at its then-current level — or 23% of the requested amount.
In speaking at the event, Wheeler said the Portland Street Response is uniquely trained to help people who are suffering mental and behavioral health crises and by addressing lower acuity calls, they’re allowing police officers more time to address severe and violent offenses.
“It allows each of our providers to do what they are best trained and prepared to do,” Wheeler said. “All too often, though, there’s a lack of properly trained response to deescalate crises on our 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.”
When asked if Portland Street Response has helped the Portland Police Bureau, Chief Chuck Lovell he’s looking forward to the expansion. He said when the program goes citywide, it will free up officers to take more calls.
He said the bureau has supported Portland Street Response from the beginning and will continue to support it. The collective bargaining agreement between the City of Portland and the bureau’s police officer union in early February included expanding Street Response citywide, along with more pay for crisis intervention training.
While the city is excited to announce the program’s progress, Hardesty said there’s still more she’d like to accomplish. She’d like to see Portland Street Response be available 24/7.
“I will need the support of my colleagues in this next budget cycle to fully fund the next expansion of Portland Street Response. I am hopeful that together we can get there because as you can see from all the people behind me, when we work together as a city, we can accomplish great things,” Hardesty said.
With the latest expansion, the program will cover 145 square miles of the city, with 20 staff members, from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. When the program began, it only had six staff members.
In October 2021, a study by Portland State University that evaluated the Portland Street Response team’s effectiveness said it should be expanded to respond round-the-clock citywide.
Burek said she expects Portland Street Response will see areas of the city that see a higher volume of calls for mental and behavioral health crises. She said they’ll need to position their vehicles accordingly.
To begin, Portland Street Response plans to have one vehicle that’s responding east of Interstate 5, one vehicle that’s responding west of I-5 and a third vehicle that will pick up other calls as they come in and go anywhere. Burek said Portland Street Response hopes to have more vehicles to dispatch places in the future.
Bob Cozzie, director of the Bureau of Emergency Communications, said 911 has been experiencing high call volume levels for the last couple of years. He said there’s been a 25-35% increase in 911 call volume since 2019.
The Bureau of Emergency Communications is working on ways to better address and dispatch calls as they come in and is currently working on an artificial intelligence response system for 911 hang-ups, which make up about 20% of call volume.
Despite this, he said he does not expect the expansion of Portland Street Response will result in any additional calls. He said calls for mental and behavioral health crises are already coming in and up to this point, they’ve sent other emergency services to respond to them throughout the city.
Hardesty said the city is working on a public education campaign to help better inform Portlanders on when they should call 911.
“Like, if somebody’s sleeping in a tent across the street from your house, that is not a good reason to call 911,” she said. “I think we have mis-trained the public to call 911 for everything, and everything is not an emergency.”
Cozzie said he has a vision to make Portland’s 311 number a county-wide resource and non-emergency line. He said he’d like to use 911 for emergency calls and 311 for “everything else.”
Originally, the Portland City Council funded the pilot project for the Portland Street Response in Fiscal Year 2020-21 with $4.8 million. In October, the City Council approved a request for more vans. For Fiscal Year 2022-23, Portland Street Response requested another $3.7 million, a budget they said would allow the program to expand citywide by October 2022.