K Marie
As with most everyone, 2020 came with unexpected twists for the architects of Portland Street Response, the city's burgeoning first responder program void of armed police officers. But for the brand new program, the year's hiccups were more positive than negative: While the city's COVID-19 hiring freeze delayed the program's start date by a year, the summer's racial justice protests inspired Portland City Council to move $4.8 million out of the city's police bureau and into Portland Street Response's previously paltry budget.

The program is centered on the idea that police aren't the right people to respond to 911 calls related to non-violent mental health crises or concerns related to homeless individuals—anything from "someone is sleeping on my porch" to "a person is yelling in the middle of the street." Instead, Portland Street Response proposes sending trained therapists and emergency medical technicians to assist with these particular scenarios.

Now, with a bolstered budget and growing staff, the program is finally holding its first training sessions for the inaugural team that will lead Portland Street Response's pilot program, which will begin in February. Over the course of this week, the group—spread out and masked in a Portland Fire & Rescue classroom—will join remote trainings over Zoom on mental health first aid, deescalation, risk assessment, dispatch protocols, and other necessities.

The trainings stand in stark contrast with traditional training programs for first responders and law enforcement, which have only recently begun requiring mental health first aid and deescalation training for rank and file members.

On Tuesday afternoon, the incoming team of four participated in a training focused on peer support, the idea that people who are struggling with an issue—whether it be substance abuse, houselessness, or mental illness—can be uniquely supported by people who have also dealt with that issue in the past.

The new staff discussed when it would be appropriate to share their personal experiences with someone they're helping.

"I always remind people to ask themselves, 'Why am I sharing what I'm sharing? What's the purpose?'" said Adrienne Scavera, a peer support expert with the Mental Health & Addiction Association of Oregon (MHAAO), who led the training. "We have to be mindful of how we share our stories....we don't want to re-traumatize folks [with out stories]."

Janie Gullickson, MHAAO director chimed in: "Share just enough to connect with that person and not make it about you."

Portland Street Response is focused on building these connections, especially within a community that's grown to distrust the officers who usually respond to 911 calls. For Robyn Burek, the program's project manager, it's the combination of staff expertise and lived experience that can help rebuild those relationships.

The inaugural Portland Street Response team is made up of one emergency medical technician with Portland Fire & Rescue, a social worker, and two community health workers. The first responder and social worker will be the primary team responding to any 911 calls rerouted to Portland Street Response, with one community heath worker being on call per shift. Those workers will be called in if the subject of a 911 call needs help accessing health services or other community resources, and will be responsible for following up with any individuals who requested help.

Burek said that both community health workers have lived experience with homelessness and mental health, one with a history working with immigrants and refugees and the other with ties in the LGBTQ+ community.

"I think what’s so great about having a pilot is that we can take multidisciplinary skillsets and experiment with how they best fit into our program," Burek said. "We're creating the blueprint."

Portland Street Response's training coincides with training within the Bureau of Emergency Communications (BOEC), the city department that oversees 911 call operators. Burek said that BOEC will train all operators on when to refer a call to Portland Street Response during the coming pilot program—which is limited to calls in the Lents neighborhood.

Before the program's February 16 start date, Burek said the team will be meeting with businesses, neighbors, and houseless residents in Lents to explain what services they can offer during the pilot and familiarize themselves with the area.

"I want the team to get a sense of the community they're serving," Burek said.

The pilot is slated to last a year, with a second team of two joining the group in July. The program is scheduled to check in with City Council on its progress before that second team begins. While Burek is eager to get the program off the ground, she's grateful for the extra time her staff have had to prepare for a first-of-its kind program.

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"I come from a project manager background," said Burek. "The way I see it, the planning stage is the most critical part of a project."

And, with the added pressure from a public seeking alternatives to traditional policing, Burek is careful to avoid mistakes.

"It’s understandable why the community is eager for us to begin," said Burek. "But that pressure—that's exactly why it's so important we get this right."