Portland Street Response

One year in, and the Portland Street Response (PSR) is meeting its ambitious goals, according to a new report released by Portland State University's Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative Tuesday. The PSR is a program that dispatches teams of three—including at least one social worker and one emergency medical responder—to certain 911 calls that don't require an armed officer.

PSR, which launched as a pilot program in February 2021, specifically responds to emergency calls involving a person "who is possibly experiencing a mental health crisis, intoxicated, and/or drug affected," is outside and on the ground (and in need of help), is "outside and yelling," or is in need of social services but doesn't have access to a phone. The program is specifically meant to address 911 calls that focus on unhoused people or on individuals outside who appear to be experiencing some kind of mental health issue. Along with emergency response, PSR also works to follow-up with previous clients and connect them to needed services, like medical care, housing, and other social supports.

The program was originally limited to Southeast Portland's Lents neighborhood, and expanded citywide this March. The PSU report specifically covers the efficacy of the Lents pilot program, which operated between Monday and Friday from 10 am to 6 pm. The now-expanded PSR program operates from 8 am to 10 pm every day. The program hopes to offer 24-hour coverage starting in fall of 2022.

According to the PSU researchers, the program is working.

In their Tuesday report, researchers explained that the program met its overarching goals to reduce calls that require a response from police and to reduce the number of non-life-threatening calls that end in a person being needlessly sent to an emergency room.

“Portland Street Response has come so far in a very short amount of time—from a small pilot program in one neighborhood to a citywide movement that has fundamentally changed Portland’s first response system," said PSU's Greg Townley, the study's main evaluator. "Portland Street Response provides a model for the nation to follow, and we look forward to continuing to monitor its progress and impact as it expands citywide."

Data found that, out of the 908 total calls PSR responded to in its first year, only 3 percent of them needed a person to be taken to a hospital. And PSR's call date reflects a 4 percent reduction in total calls that police would have traditionally responded to in the Lents neighborhood during the pilot program's hours of operation.

The study also found that 65 percent of PSR clients were experiencing homelessness at the time PSR interacted with them, and 52 percent involved someone with "suspected mental health needs."

None of PSR's responses resulted in arrests, and more than 400 of the interactions left clients with referrals to social support services—including everything from housing options to pet care. A total of nine PSR clients obtained permanent housing, the report finds.

The report echoed the findings of an October PSU report on PSR, taken at the program's six-month mark, which also trumpeted PSR's success. Yet the study did find that members of the public were much more knowledgeable about what PSR was in the year report than the six-month study. Researchers also observed a "noticeable shift" in Portland Police Bureau (PPB) employees lessening their skepticism about the program over the additional six months.

The report outlined limitations to PSR's work that were also acknowledged in the six-month report. Due to labor contract rules of the Portland Police Association (PPA)—PPB's union for rank-and-file officers—PSR staff are barred from entering residential buildings to offer assistance and from responding to 911 calls regarding suicide. Staff are also prohibited from responding if a person is in traffic, threatening violence, or they have a weapon. PSR staff also can't put a "hold" on someone—a term for taking someone into custody (usually to a psychiatric facility) if that person is determined to be a danger to themselves or others due to a mental illness.

"While it is expected that police would respond to calls involving weapons and imminent threats of violence, other restrictions constrain PSR from having an impact where their skills are potentially needed most," reads the report.

These barriers are currently being discussed in closed-door meetings between PPA representatives and city officials, including PSR staff. This group has met twice to work through potential changes to these policies, and is expected to produce recommendations to City Council by June 30.

Over the past year, PSR staff have expressed the weighty responsibilities tied to their job—especially as it was heavily marketed as a solution to many of the city's problems. That attitude was captured in interview the researchers conducted with PSR employees.

“When I was hired, my understanding was to reduce police involvement in certain types of crises or emergencies—reduce police and fire involvement, and also reduce visits to the emergency department," said one unnamed staff member. "And then after I was hired, I learned of the expectation that Portland Street Response is also responding to the homelessness crisis. And so that was a shift in how I thought about the program after I started the job.”

Other employees mentioned the pressure that politics places on their job—and general uncertainty tied up with the program's future.

Researchers also interview other first responders. Portland Fire & Rescue staff stressed the need for PSR to have expanded hours to assist with late night 911 calls and expressed their interest in working more closely with PSR staff.

"Honestly, I think the most effective thing is actually a sit-down face-to-face with crews," said one unnamed PFR employee.

"The best way to reach firefighters isn’t through a memo, it’s not top-down, it really has to be grassroots and lateral, and they want that," said another.

PPB employees similarly expressed interest in PSR expanding, with many wishing the pilot team was available in other areas of town.

“I think expanding the footprint of their coverage area for Portland Street Response is a really great thing," said one unnamed officer. "...Allowing them to sort of go beyond that initial small area I think was both helpful for them and allowed them to gain more repetition doing what they’re doing, which I think is super important for them.”

Several officers pointed to how allowing PSR staff to respond to suicide calls would lighten their workload, with one PPB staffer expressing surprise that PSR is banned from taking these calls.

PSR doesn't always respond to 911 calls on its own—sometimes employees call PPB or PFR to assist in a situation—or vice-versa. According to the report, 99 of the 908 PSR calls were categorized as "co-response," meaning that more than one first responder team came to the scene. In 28 incidents, PSR staff called in an ambulance team to support their response. In 18 incidents, PSR staff requested police backup, while PPB requested PSR's support in 22 cases. It appears that in many cases, officers were brought to the scene since they had the power to take someone with a mental illness into custody (or, a "hold") to receive medical care.

"The biggest reason to have co-response right now is to have the ability to put a hold on somebody because police bring that tool," one officer told researchers.

Researchers suggested that in its next year, PSR expands to 24/7 coverage (as planned), improve public education on PSR's offerings, improve communication between PSR and other first responders, and ensure PSR staff have the right resources available to help clients.

City Council will discuss the report's findings at a work session Tuesday at 9:30 am. Follow along: