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Portland Street Response overwhelmed by increase in calls since expanding citywide

The team gets about 13 calls a day, but doesn’t have enough staff to answer them all.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland Street Response, a mobile crisis team responding to people on the streets with mental health or substance use issues, recently expanded to offer city-wide services. However, they’re unable to keep up with the number of calls coming in.

Those going through a mental or behavioral health crisis, or people experiencing an emergency with substance use could have to wait longer before help arrives. 

“The crews are just going back to back on calls right now with no breaks,” said Robyn Burek, the program’s manager.

Teams of two to three mental health crisis responders, firefighter EMTs and peer support specialists make up Portland Street Response. They respond to non-violent mental health, substance use, and general welfare calls that come into Portland’s 911 call center.

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“Even though the demand has exceeded our capacity to handle all the calls that are coming in, it's informing how big we need to scale this program,” said Burek.

The program started last year and focused on the Lents neighborhood in Southeast Portland. They got about four calls a day.

In March, they expanded city-wide. Now, they get about 13 calls a day – mainly wellness checks – but don’t have enough staff to answer them all.

“I knew it was going to be busier. I guess I just didn’t realize it was going to be this busy,” said Burek.

They have 16 employees and need 42 more. The hiring process is slow.

“We don’t just want to bring 40 new people on all at once. We want to be very thoughtful about how we scale and phase this program up,” she added.

Meanwhile, they’re taking five calls at a time. The rest go on a waitlist or to the police and fire department.

“We have calls waiting for us to get to them and we don’t want those calls to sit there for hours on end because ... by the time that we get there, they’re going to be gone,” said Burek.

With a roughly 13-minute response time – about 40% of the calls – they arrive to the location, but the person in crisis is no longer there.

“Because we have such long wait times before we can get to them,” Burek explained.

City council just approved an $8.3 million budget for the program, but it’s still unclear if this will be enough to cover future service expansions.

“I don’t think I could do anything differently. As long I would be able to scale up quickly and snap my fingers, this is just part of scaling up. This is part of the growing pain,” she said.

By mid-October, another 13 teams will be added to the program with the goal of providing 24/7 services. Right now, they operate from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and the rest of the week from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. 

To get help from Portland Street Response, call 911. 

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