PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — There is a lot of hope riding on the Portland Street Response team. It’s a new way of thinking, sending unarmed crisis workers to help people suffering mental and behavioral health problems.

But it’s hard to launch a new program in the middle of a crisis.

“I sometimes do refer to them as growing pains,” said Portland Street Response Manager Robyn Burek. “Our number one priority and goal is to ensure that somebody’s safe in that moment and to address the acute need.”

Burek is the first and only program manager for PSR, a unit under the Portland Fire Bureau. She put the initial proposal together to City Council and is guiding it through rapid expansion. Its current annual budget is $11.5 million.

Portland Street Response on Facebook

“I think that the growing pains, what you might refer to as growing pains, is just you have a lot of first-time responders,” she told KOIN 6 News. “They’ve been in the mental health industry for a long time, but they’ve never been first responders before. So that learning curve of learning how to take calls on the radios and that sort of speak, that takes some time.”

Hiring frenzy

PSR began as a pilot program 18 months ago with just a single team of 4 — a paramedic, a licensed clinical social worker and 2 community health workers — who go into the field and work with people in crisis.

Since then, the program has been in a hiring frenzy. There is now a staff of 34 with the hope to reach 58 by the end of the year.

A Portland Street Response team, 2022 (PFR)

At this time, PSR has 4 staffed vehicles to respond 7 days a week, with a goal of 6 vans citywide during peak call times.

And the demand is strong. The number of calls exploded when the program became citywide at the end of March.

In April, the number of calls jumped to 811. Since then, the number of calls to PSR plummeted to 356 in September. But that’s not because there is less demand. It’s because the program couldn’t keep up.

“What we’re doing is we’re limiting calls to 5 in a queue. So once we have 5, then we sort of take ourselves offline and we just address those 5 calls,” Burek said. “Any calls that come in in the meantime will go to police, fire, wherever they would’ve traditionally been triaged.”

The average wait time for a caller to PSR is 51 minutes. But 90% of the time it’s nearly 2.5 hours.

“It’s not fair to the community to call and request our services and then it sit in the queue for hours on end,” she said. “I anticipate in the next few months that we’ll be able to go back to normal and there won’t be a queue where people have to stack up anymore.”

Stats of who gets help

Street Response may be new to Portland but it’s not new to cities like Eugene, which has had a program in place for more than 30 years.

The Crisis Assistance Helping Out On the Streets program — CAHOOTS — has helped provide guidance for PSR. They’ve even done ride-alongs.

“It’s not illegal to, to have a mental health crisis in public. And I think some people forget that.”

— Robyn Burek, Portland Street Response

Burek said the PSR protocol for calling the police “is if something turns violent, or there’s a weapon that’s being brandished. Then we have our radios handy and we’re able to let dispatchers know what’s happening.”

To date, there have been 3 cases where PSR staff called the police. None of their employees has been hurt.

Portland Street Response Manager Robyn Burek, August 2022 (KOIN)
Portland Street Response Manager Robyn Burek, August 2022 (KOIN)

Most of the time (1005 times) they respond to people with unmet basic needs, like food and water. Mental health crisis (891) is the second reason followed closely (846) by drug and alcohol use.

A total of 66% of the people PSR has worked with are homeless. But the number could be higher as the status of another 27% is unknown.

“I’m also really optimistic and happy to know that this is our final push in terms of really scaling up and that in the next few months this conversation’s going to be completely different,” Burek told KOIN 6 News. “It’ll be, like, oh, we can breathe now. And now we actually have everything that we need in place.”

She stressed people don’t have to accept help from PSR. They have the option to decide where they go and what resources they’ll take.

“It’s not illegal to have a mental health crisis in public,” she said. “I think some people forget that.”