On a recent Thursday morning, two dozen volunteers armed with clipboards scattered across Portland searching for so-called “unwanted persons.”
“These are the people we need to hear from,” said Street Roots director Kaia Sand, who coordinated the event.
Every 15 minutes, 911 dispatchers in Portland receive a call about a person that building owners don’t want on or adjacent to their property. These people, labeled “unwanted persons” by police, are usually homeless and nonviolent, but are reported after they pitch a tent or take a nap near someone’s house or business.
These low-level calls consume hours of Portland officers’ time. In the past year, nearly a quarter of all Portland 911 calls were about unwanted persons; in that same period, more than half of all arrests in Portland were of people identified as homeless.
This outsized police response to the city’s homeless population inspired Street Roots to propose Portland Street Response (PSR). The idea: Instead of sending cops to respond to 911 calls about unwanted persons or people with a percieved mental illness, the city would dispatch physicians, social workers, or other first responders who seem better equipped to handle the issue. The city’s committed a portion of its annual budget to give the idea a try, putting $500,000 toward a two-person PSR pilot project.
While city staff hold meetings about how PSR could operate within Portland’s complex 911 system, Street Roots volunteers are hitting the pavement to collect feedback from the top experts on the issue: Portland’s homeless community.
Volunteers spent a few July weekdays asking homeless Portlanders what kind of response they’d appreciate in situations where they were labeled “unwanted” by a 911 caller.
“It would be nice if it wasn’t just someone telling me to move,” said a middle-aged man, rolling up a sleeping mat under the Burnside Bridge. “Someone with empathy.”
A young woman told volunteers that she gets frightened whenever an officer wakes her up.
“We exist in an environment where we can’t help but fear the police,” she said. “It would be better to have an outside party intervene.”
A Street Roots vendor who goes by “Mode” said responders should have a background in mental health and mediation.
“What people are dealing with is the stress of a situation where someone has called the cops on them,” said Mode. “And that needs to be addressed first.”
Others raised concerns with officers not responding when they call 911 to report a theft, an assault, or another crime commonly committed against the houseless. “I don’t think they take our needs seriously,” said a woman who answered questions while applying makeup.
The feedback gathered by Street Roots volunteers reflected a diverse community with different priorities—results that were expected, given that Portland’s homeless population is made up of more than 4,000 individuals. But those surveyed all shared a similar look of surprise when volunteers asked for their opinion.
“[The city] never asks us what we think about the rules,” one man said. “They just expect us to follow them.”