Keeping Portland Street Response on track demands disciplined focus

Kaia Sand is the executive director of Street Roots.

The work to create a whole new first responder system must transcend one administration, one person, one moment.

Portland Street Response is at a crossroads.

The innovative first responder system is city-wide but still limited in hours, and the commissioner in charge, Rene Gonzalez, announced a hiring freeze in February. Fire Chief Sara Boone later directed PSR workers to accompany city sweeps, counter to the tenet that this program be separate from law enforcement strategies so people in crisis can trust program workers.

Will our city leaders commit to the full development of an innovative, 21st-century first responder system alongside first responder systems that are centuries old? Or, will leaders starve and misdirect the program, hijack it with short-term agendas, neglect it through a lack of political will from new leaders who aren’t committed to its purpose and overburden it with needs beyond the program scope?

Right now, we have an alarming glimpse of an alternative reality where Portland Street Response is run from a place of fear rather than vision, misused to serve powerful interests rather than the people who actually need it.

Yet this is a program borne in the imaginations of many Portlanders, and its development demands an engaged movement beyond inception.

To fully realize the dream of Portland Street Response, we must fight to see it through.

From outside the state, it looks like Portland is cutting-edge and visionary with Portland Street Response. It’s rare I’m in a meeting with a national focus in which Portland Street Response isn’t lauded. This week the international news network Al Jazeera featured the provisional success of Portland Street Response. Elected leaders from all over the nation came to learn about Portland Street Response last October with nonprofit Local Progress.

This positive view of what Portland is trying to do is earned. At a time of great unrest and unease, we’ve imagined, piloted and expanded Portland Street Response. It was only four years ago when The Oregonian — and then Reveal Magazine again in 2022 — reported over half of all arrests in Portland targeted unhoused people. The police were the wrong first responder system for many needs, and we needed to set about creating the right one.

Building from the decades-old CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Street Roots launched a rough plan March 15, 2019. After Portland City Council funded a pilot in June 2019, Mayor Ted Wheeler and then-Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty co-led a workgroup through the summer, leading up to a pilot design under Portland Fire and Rescue, which possesses dispatch infrastructure and medical qualifications. CAHOOTS staff consulted on planning.

When many Portlanders were taking to the streets over police violence against Black people in June 2020, City Council committed more funding to PSR. The Lents pilot was launched in February 2021, expanding to more hours and more east Portland neighborhoods until it went city-wide with daytime hours in March 2022.

Portland State University Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative conducts evaluations every six months to scale up Portland Street Response into a “permanent and co-equal branch of the first response system in Portland.” Street Roots ambassadors survey people experiencing homelessness.

These evaluations stay focused on a program objective to reduce police responses to non-criminal calls. As of the most recent evaluation, these calls were reduced by 3.2%.

Portland Street Response’s success comes from what doesn’t happen as well as what does, and that’s hard to recognize. It’s too common in the United States to read how a small incident escalates into death through encounters with the police. Right when the city of Portland committed to funding the program, Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta was murdered in a police confrontation — when he had requested to walk to his sister’s house so he could sober up.

Every time I see a Portland Street Response van pass, I think of the headlines we won’t have to read. When Portland Street Response hands out a sandwich or a cigarette, they are often calming a situation that could be a tragedy.

We have a lot of systems to fix that would make Portland Street Response more effective — substance use disorder treatment, including safe places for people to detox, more services for people struggling with mental health, and of course, housing. Constructive solutions need to be scaled up alongside Portland Street Response.

The latest effort to send Portland Street Response out for city sweeps is an undisciplined commitment to policy development, forcing one program to make up for other areas of struggle in city systems. While it might seem like a decent idea to have PSR present for people distressed when police or city contractors take their tents, that is tangling PSR into an enforcement role. Yes, if someone undergoes a crisis during a sweep, PSR can be called as a separate entity, just as a park ranger or water bureau employee or city resident can call.

Let’s maintain constructive determination to realize “a permanent and co-equal branch of the first response system in Portland.” This includes making sure Portland Street Response is:

– Funded and staffed to serve Portlanders 24/7

– Allowed to respond to more call types such as private residences (think of welfare checks during our next severe weather event)

– Dispatched through the Bureau of Emergency Communications for quick responses, as it currently is

– Still evaluated by Portland State so that the program has clear guideposts and all of us have the information we need.

Portland Street Response should not be derailed off its mission and into enforcement roles.

The work to create a whole new first responder system must transcend one administration, one person, one moment. This is a people’s effort, a Portland effort. It’s all our responsibility to see through.