ON THEIR WAY INTO A MEETING in the basement cafeteria at Benson High School last Thursday evening, May 29, people had to walk past a blocked drinking fountain full of gray scummy water.
The stagnation of the drinking fountain, remarked one passerby, was an appropriate metaphor for the subject up for discussion at the night's meeting: The county's mental health provider, Cascadia, is about to run out of money. It's a problem for which the county is still struggling to come up with a viable rescue plan.
Earlier this month, Cascadia admitted it had taken a $2 million line of credit from its bank without telling anyone outside the agency. CEO Leslie Ford resigned and was replaced by Derald Walker, and as a temporary solution, the state and county bailed Cascadia out by accelerating $2.5 million in payments due to the group for work already performed.
Since the financial problems hit, many of Cascadia's clients and employees alike have been worried about the future of the group's housing and psychiatric services. But at last week's meeting they were only offered the opportunity to tell the county how they felt—it was a meeting starkly similar to group therapy, but largely ineffective when it came to actually solving Cascadia's problems.
Judith Mowry from the City of Portland's Office of Neighborhood Involvement facilitated Thursday's meeting. Mowry, who was featured on the front cover of the New York Times last week for her role in the city's restorative listening project about gentrification, was also involved in facilitating the Chinese community's response to an offensive dragon sculpture in Old Town/Chinatown last January; the response of Overlook neighbors to the controversial rename of Interstate Avenue after César E. Chávez last September; and more recently, in facilitating the siting of a delayed center for day laborers.
Mowry may be the person local governments bring in when frustrated citizens have steam to blow off, but her role last week was frustrating to those who were expecting County Chair Ted Wheeler to have come up with a fix for Cascadia's problems by now.
"They wanted someone who could facilitate the mental health community," Mowry offered, when asked why Wheeler wasn't facilitating the meeting personally.
"My concern at this point is that all these things are very touchy feely—but this is serious stuff, and I'd think by now that the county would have a plan to show us," said one mental health expert who declined to be attributed.
Of the 90 attendees, most worked for Cascadia, and about 20 were people with mental illnesses who use Cascadia's services. Mowry had people break up into small groups, each with a facilitator, and asked that "consumers" and "Cascadia people" sit separately, "since the aim of tonight's meeting is to get feedback from mental health consumers about Cascadia."
Most "consumers"—even the use of that word, instead of "people suffering with mental illness," irked several among the crowd—were pretty pissed off. Since the county moved last year from paying for services per capita to paying for each individual service in what's known as a fee-for-service model, consumers say services are less holistic. Now, they're worried they might lose services altogether thanks to the county's inadequate financial oversight of Cascadia.
"We used to have time together," said one consumer, talking about the clinical relationship with providers. "We could see each other and we'd meet once a week to get to know each other. Now you don't see people. They come for their appointments, then they go home."
Others are concerned that the new service model is tough to track.
"When the county says people who need services are getting them, my question is, how do we know that people are getting services?" asked State Senator Avel Gordly. "I'm interested in factual, verifiable information that demonstrates how we know that."
With those issues looming—and the infusion of cash from the county and state about to run out—Multnomah County's Director of Human Services Joanne Fuller said the county's plan is expected "in a couple of weeks." But she added that it's going to be an "incremental, transitional process—so people shouldn't expect a guiding document. As the situation changes, we'll adapt as we go."
For many present at the meeting, that wasn't good enough.
"I haven't heard a reasonable rationale for terminating thousands and thousands of clinical relationships," said Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland. "These relationships have value that far outweighs the value of the county's budget. This is clearly not a priority issue for Ted Wheeler."