Robyn Burek, manager of Portland Street Response, speaks at a press conference Monday.
Robyn Burek, manager of Portland Street Response, speaks at a press conference Monday. Alex Zielinski

Portland Street Response, the city program that responds to 911 calls related to low-risk behavioral health issues, has formally expanded to respond to calls originating from across Portland.

"This is a historic day in the city of Portland," said City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, speaking Monday morning at a press conference. Hardesty is the commissioner in charge of Portland Fire and Rescue, which oversees Portland Street Response. "We are celebrating today," she added.

It's been just over a year since the street response program began as a pilot program, solely responding to calls in Southeast Portland's Lents neighborhood. The program was proposed in 2019 as a way to both lessen the workload of the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) and to steer people in need toward social services and health care instead of the criminal justice system. A six-month evaluation of the pilot program by Portland State University found that the program had met its initial goals by reducing the number of police responses in Lents by nearly 5 percent and none of the calls resulted in a person being placed under arrest. The majority of people the team responds to are unhoused.

This report encouraged Portland City Council to fund a citywide expansion of the program in November, increasing the response staff of six to 20. The expanded program operates from 8 am to 10 pm every day, and is comprised of teams of two to three. Each team includes one trained medic and one mental health crisis worker, and is often joined by a peer response worker—a position responsible for following up with clients after a call to make sure their needs have been met.

Britt Urban, a mental health clinician, has been working for Portland Street Response since it began its Lents program in February 2021. On Monday, Urban said she's loved noticing incremental success over the past year among individuals she frequently interacts with—whether that's seeing that a client is newly sober or taking better care of their physical health.

"We had some amazing moments with individuals after many months that, even if they were still living on the streets and didn't make the change in their life that maybe we were hoping for, they were doing better," Urban said.

"At the beginning, I think there was an expectation that we were going to solve the homelessness crisis or make these giant leaps in a short amount of time and fix everything," she continued. "But it comes down to having a small moment with an individual and making sure they feel safe."

The program has hit a few roadblocks in its ability to meet individuals' needs. Specifically, the response teams are barred from responding to calls relating to suicide or to people who are located inside private residences. These limitations are tied to the Portland Police Association (PPA), the union representing rank-and-file Portland police officers, which requires contract negotiations if any other entity wants to respond to specific 911 calls. An agreement in the PPA's latest contract with the city requires PPA representatives meet with street response representatives and 911 call center officials to reach new agreements on what kind of calls Portland Street Response is allowed to respond to. According to Portland Street Response Program Manager Robyn Burek, those meetings will begin next week.

Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell said that his department's hesitation with handing over more calls to Portland Street Response is solely based on public safety.

"When [officers] go into a situation, all you really know is what someone on the phone tells you," said Lovell. "So you go in with unknowns into these calls. These lower-acuity calls could evolve into something else. So when something that sounds good for Portland Street Response becomes something else—what do we do then?"

The Monday press conference also served as an opportunity for the program's leaders to announce another budget request headed to Portland City Council that would allow Portland Street Response to expand to 24-hour coverage. The additional $3.7 million in city dollars would grow the program to 58 employees by October.

It's not yet known if commissioners are in unanimous support of this additional expansion. Burek said that the public should have a better idea of where City Council stands on a 24/7 expansion after commissioners read the one year review of Portland Street Response, which will be released in April. City Council will vote on the entire city budget in June.