Portland Street Response: Expansion and Effectiveness

By Jack Rubinger

The Portland Street Response (PSR) team operates within the 911 system for non-emergencies and consists of a multi-disciplinary, culturally diverse team. It includes peer support, and will expand with additional personnel in the Spring.

“We’re re-inventing how first response is done,” said Robyn Burek, Program Manager. “An increasingly large number of calls that would have been handled by Police and Fire can now be handed off to PSR.”

They currently have two units, one for each shift. Their budget request, unanimously approved in November by City Council, provides the community with four additional vans, for a total of six.  

The four new vans will be launched in March 2022, at which point PSR will go citywide, though not 24/7.  

“We’ve yet to determine how we will split those six vans. Initially we were thinking we would have three cover the day shift and three cover the night shift, but we’re learning our day shift is experiencing a higher call volume than our night shift and so we’ll use the data to determine our staffing schedule,” said Burek.

The current PSR day shift includes one firefighter/paramedic, one mental health crisis responder, two community health workers and one peer support specialist who splits time between first responder and after care coordination.

The current night shift includes one firefighter EMT-B, one mental health crisis responder and one peer support specialist.

Future staffing for the vans include four community health medics, four mental health crisis responders, three community health workers and two peer support specialists.

PSR’s second shift started taking calls and offers expanded service 6 pm–2:30 am, Thursday-Sunday. PSR’s existing day shift has changed its hours to 9 am-5 pm, Monday–Thursday. 

Both shifts will respond in a new expanded boundary that corresponds to Portland Police Bureau’s East Precinct, increasing from 13 square miles to 36 square miles and covering the majority of SE Portland.

“The pilot program has been effective,” Burek said. “We’re constantly learning to respond to calls which vary in volume and severity.”

Greg Townley, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Psychology and Co-Founder, Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative, reported the following statistics:

In the first six months of the program (February 16-August 16, 2021), the team responded to 383 incidents. Of these calls, 90 percent were calls traditionally responded to by Portland Police Bureau. 10 percent were calls traditionally responded to by Portland Fire & Rescue.

PSR’s activity represents a 4.6 percent reduction in total calls responded to by police in the pilot program’s service area and during their operating hours.

“The PSR team has established a strong presence both in the Lents community and throughout Portland. 

“In the first six months of the pilot, they engaged over 350 community members in outreach and engagement activities, including de-escalation trainings and participation in a variety of community events that were open to all members of the community,” said Townley.

“Perhaps most importantly, they helped to lead the effort to keep unhoused and other community members safe during the record heat waves of 2021 by setting up a cooling station in Lents Park and bringing water, ice and other resources to campers along the Springwater Trail,” he added.

Townley heard from one community member who said, “I think this is the first time in a really long time that we felt like any system was trying to work for Lents or any neighborhood that’s walking through poverty and it feels like something is coming for us rather than fighting against us. 

“And that gives people hope, which leads to restoration and reconciliation. I think PSR has been a huge light of hope for our community.”

Not everyone agrees with the success or effectiveness of PSR in Lents.

According to David Potts, Lents Neighborhood Liveability Association, “PSR does not provide much benefit to the Lents community. On the street, we haven’t seen much of an effect from them. The city is all talk about making Portland better, when things are actually getting worse and worse.”

“The city is good at creating agencies with bloated expenditures, Potts added. “It’s basically a PR campaign. They just hand out snacks and bottles of water. They’re not delivering what was promised. Our last meeting with PSR was April 2021.”

Robert Schultz, local community volunteer and handyman, offers a cautiously optimistic perspective of PSR.

Schultz sited an incident he observed inside a local grocery store where a man was causing a disturbance by throwing things. Local law enforcement were on-site to help. Schultz asked them if they’d called PSR. The local law enforcement said, “Oh, it’ll take them two hours to get here.”

“There hasn’t been enough time for the program to prove itself and expand,” he said. “While the program has good bones, there’s potential to deliver more.”

For more information about Portland Street Response, visit portland.gov/streetresponse.

Community Health Worker Haika Mushi photo by Portland Street Response

Portland Street Response: Expansion and Effectiveness

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