Counseling/Mental Health Jan 17, 2019 at 4:00 am

What’s Keeping Portland Cops from Helping People In Mental Health Crises?

illustration by Ryan F. Johnson



Since James Chasse was killed by Portland Police in 2006, the Mental Health Action Alliance has been advocating for a more proactive, broad-spectrum, preventive approach to mental health care. By starving the community mental health system of resources to sustain people's mental health, state and county decision-makers guarantee that too man people will fall into crisis. Many will end up interacting with police. Some will end up dead. The key is to prevent crises, not manage them better.


I worked for a local mental health org that mainly treated people in and out of homelessness, which was everything activists want - harm reduction model for drug use, had a small team to respond to crisis instead of the police (and police would drop charges/let us take over), innovative models for counseling and group therapy. The homeless that used our services largely didn't care.

The issue is that this model of open thinking and permissiveness works for people who value open thinking and permissiveness. Liberal, college educated people think its a great idea. I did. There have been studies that show that conservative mindsets work more on fear and control, and can't see a non-authoritarian approach as valid. Many in the homeless community that are struggling and have recidivism tend to lean towards this mindset. We would offer these new forms of care and for every person who appreciated it, three would exploit it and work to dismantle it. Above all, they would ONLY see the police as people that could tell them what to do. We would offer free drug rehab instead of jail for repeat offenses, we would offer to give shelter for the night when it was cold, we would offer free food, and every time a conflict came up they would tell us to fuck off and say "if police aren't showing up, you can't do shit."

I don't know how we can create a culture that actually facilitates these changes, but these programs already exist and yet they are ineffective. They are what the non-profit leaders think is the future for humane treatment, but a large subset of the people who get served see it as a permissive, weak organization that lets them get away with more before getting kicked out for bad behavior.

These types of articles always ask some grant writer or project manager with a vision for new models without ever asking the on-the-ground workers who can plainly tell you they don't work like expected. I want them too, but they just don't. The college educated don't understand lower-class culture, and that schism is one of the barriers to designing effective models for people in a lower SES peer group.


Hallu's comment is the best and most insightful thing I have read on the subject. Thank you.


As we have more traffic on the streets than ever, these poor homeless people also have to contend with unsafe drivers! Pedestrian fatalities and injuries from traffic incidents are at an all-time high. It's time the city enact some simple common sense solutions to address this public safety issue!


@ hallu Wow. Thanks for that. I've walked many of the same streets you have and found the same unfortunate truths. The question is how do we convince policy makers that it's not a false dichotomy of no rules vs jack booted thuggery and there is a middle ground where we recognize homeless people are humans who deserve compassion while demanding a modicum of "don't be shitty" to the rest of us. Where are the lines? What are the responses? We aren't close to an answer. We can't even agree on the fact that some people have rejected society and rightfully should be excluded, forcibly if needed.


Hallu nailed it on the head.. anyone who works daily and directly with individuals suffering from mental health issues has less of a ‘head in the clouds’ approach. Liberal professors and/or liberal progressives, who’ve just entered the field or are just enough detached from the day-in-day-out reality, where it doesn’t burden them too much, have a rosy solution to the issues. You talk to people on the ground and you’ll get the actual challenges faced, and potential solutions. You talk to people who have superficial interactions with homeless people or people with mental illnesses, then they give you some solution they read in a book that has little to no practical effects. This author seems to write a lot of articles that are directly or indirectly critical of the police and social services. It’d do him well to do a ride along or spent a couple of nights in a homeless shelter. He’d have less of an liberal-echo-chamber tone to his writing. All journalists who write socially conscious, or socially critical articles should take an applied course in ethnographic research. It’s the least they can do from the standpoint of integrity. Unless, of course, the Mercury is content to print articles written by armchair journalists who just write from a slant that reinforces their preconceived notions.


"Unless, of course, the Mercury is content to print articles written by armchair journalists who just write from a slant that reinforces their preconceived notions."

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