Doug Brown

Mental health professionals. Not the police.

That's who should be responding to most low-level 911 calls in Portland, according to a recent survey of houseless Portlanders.

The survey found that most homeless Portlanders believe officers play an important role in the city—but it shouldn't include responding to 911 calls about someone sleeping in public, reacting from a drug overdose, or simply suffering from a mental illness.

"If someone is just camping, minding their own business, [police shouldn’t be present]," said one unidentified respondent who was quoted in a report on the survey's findings, released Thursday.

These findings, informed by 184 homeless Portlanders surveyed in July and September, will shape the future of Portland's emergency response system. The survey was conducted by community volunteers and city staff tasked by Portland City Council to help craft a new 911 response program—one that could reverse Portland Police Bureau's (PPB) trend of arresting a disproportionate number of houseless people for low-level offenses by dispatching mental health experts, social workers, or physicians to certain 911 calls. The city suspects the program could help connect more homeless Portlanders to useful services (instead of jail) while freeing up overworked officers to respond to more critical 911 calls.

Street Roots was the first to pitch this alternate 911 response program to the public in March, dubbing it Portland Street Response (PSR). The idea got traction in City Hall, and commissioners earmarked $500,000 of the city's 2019-2020 budget to fund a PSR pilot project with two employees. Staff for Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commission Jo Ann Hardesty are working together—along with numerous community groups—to present a rough draft of the PSR pilot to City Council in November.

There's still many unanswered questions the city needs to address before that point. It's still uncertain if PSR would be part of the police bureau, what exact services they would offer, or how they'd be dispatched to specific calls.

The majority of homeless Portlanders surveyed said 911 calls related to loitering, camping, mental health issues, or drug overdoses should be addressed by mental health professionals, peer counselors, or social workers who could help connect people to housing and health services. Many said they'd be more trusting of first responders if they didn't carry a weapon and didn't check every homeless person for outstanding warrants.

"When cops appear, people with warrants disperse," the report reads. "The ones who disperse are often the ones who need help."

Asked what training PSR first responders should have, the majority of those surveyed said "mental health awareness." "Listening" was the runner-up, followed by "de-escalation."

"When stepping into a situation, keep an open mind," said one anonymous respondent quoted in the report. "There is always more to a story than what you first see. Don’t assume or judge, ask questions, ask what they think would resolve the problem the best.”

Others suggested PSR members wore identifiable uniforms and brought water or food with them. Many asked that first responders assist them in finding "somewhere to go"—like a place to sleep, shower, or just get out of the way.

The report offers eight sweeping recommendations for city staff to consider when drafting the pilot, from "Portland Street Response should not be armed or run warrant checks" to "educat[ing] community members about emergency calls."

"Several respondents discussed frustrations with community members who call 911 whenever they see a homeless person or tent, typically when no emergency is present," the report reads.

Perhaps the most consequential suggestion from the report: "Portland Street Response needs to be separate from the police."

City staff will consider these suggestions—along with feedback from PPB officers, homeless service providers, business associations, 911 call center staff, and others familiar with the current response system—before presenting the PSR pilot proposal to City Council in November.