By Nancy Tannler
The Portland Street Response (PSR) program launched their first four-person team on February 16 in the Lents neighborhood. PSR is an alternative to sending the police to mental health calls and homeless issues. They do not respond to criminal or emergency calls.
Although the need for this service is greatest in downtown Portland, Robyn Burek, Program Manager for Portland Fire & Rescue Portland Street Response, said they chose the Lents neighborhood for several reasons.
There has been a 20 percent increase in distress calls coming from this area and the size of the area, a five-mile radius, is manageable for this trial run response team. There are 35,000 people living here and over 150 different languages are spoken, making it one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Portland.
The PSR pilot program was approved by City Council in November of 2019 but was slow to start due to COVID-19. Burek said that after all the civil unrest resulting from the death of George Floyd in June of last year, City Council agreed to increase PSR budge from the initial $50,000 to $4.8 million.
City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty and Mayor Ted Wheeler are strong proponents of this program.
The first PSR team includes a firefighter/paramedic, a mental health clinician and two community health workers.
The firefighter/paramedic and mental health clinician will respond first by going directly to a person in crisis and providing immediate stabilization for a medical or psychological crisis. If the person in crisis will benefit from and is open to more available services, the two community health workers take over and help the individual find them.
In a few months, they will have a special van equipped with food, water, hand-warmers, blankets and medical supplies. Until then, the team will use one of the fire department’s SUVs designated for the PSR.
Previously these types of calls have been answered by police officers who arrive on the scene quickly, but only have time to try and de-escalate the situation before being directed elsewhere. The PSR will have the time to thoroughly assess a situation and care for the individual completely. These non-emergency calls can take up to 50 minutes.
Currently 911 or the non-emergency police number (503.823.3333) are the numbers to call for PSR. Burek said people are sometimes reluctant to call the police when they see someone in crisis. PSR hopes to build out their call center including a 311 number for non-criminal calls.
PSR is coordinated by Portland Fire & Rescue because they are connected to the 911 system, they built a foundation with their Community Health Assessment Team (CHAT). Plus, Burek said, “PSR is separate from the police and is trusted by the community,”
In order to keep the citizens updated and aware of any developing situations, PSR is on Facebook and Twitter and their website, portland.gov/streetresponse, will be updated regularly. In the future, Burek said they will have flash alerts for the media.
The team now works Monday-Friday 10 am-6 pm. In July, the program will expand with another team that will allow 24/7 response in the Lents neighborhood. The city plans to add more locations and teams in 2021.
L to R: Heather Middleton, Britt Urban, Tremaine Clayton and Haika Mushi. Photo by Portland Street Response