PORTLAND, Ore. — This week, Portland's unarmed crisis response team received its first progress report conducted since expanding its services citywide. The new evaluation of Portland Street Response suggests that while it is now handling considerably more calls for service, it faces many of the same challenges that it did before.
Like prior data released in April, the report was compiled by researchers at Portland State University's Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative.
According to the report, PSR responded to 3,228 incidents in the first six months after expanding citywide, a 717% increase over the same period in 2021. Most of those calls came from Portland's emergency dispatch center, BOEC.
The vast majority of calls were handled alone, without a response from police, firefighters or paramedics. And most of those calls, 3,158, would have previously been handled by the Portland Police Bureau.
Still, the research suggests that these calls amounted to a relatively small portion of the police bureau's total calls, 3.2% of calls during Portland Street Response's operating hours. When looking specifically at non-emergency welfare checks and unwanted persons calls, that share rose to 18.7%. PSR reduced Portland Fire & Rescue's response to behavioral health, illegal burn and non-emergency medical calls by 3.2% during operating hours.
Those percentages of calls handled by PSR were somewhat smaller than pre-expansion, when PSR was confined to parts of Portland east of I-205 and south of I-84.
"While this figure (3.2%) is lower than the 4% reduction we observed during the first year of the program, it is very likely due to the staffing shortages that the program experienced during much of this evaluation period, as well as the much larger geographic area they were covering (145 square miles compared to 13 to 36 square miles during the pilot)," the report noted.
Most calls handled by PSR were considered resolved in the field, the report found, with only 61 people transported to the hospital for additional care. None of these calls resulted in the arrest of a person.
During initial contacts with people in the field, PSR staff made 358 referrals to service. Most of those referrals, 226, went to community health workers within the PSR organization.
"During this evaluation period, Community Health Workers and Peer Staff helped their clients achieve notable positive outcomes in housing, shelter, healthcare, and basic needs," the report said. "Five clients obtained permanent housing as a result of their work with PSR, and one client was able to avoid an eviction and retain housing. An additional 10 clients obtained two weeks or more of shelter, and 10 were able to retain their current shelter."
Though Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler proposed in April that PSR also be expanded to offer 24/7 service, that expansion has yet to occur. The report noted that this is expected to happen by the end of the year or early 2023.
Challenges noted in the report echoed many issues found in prior reports. Less than half of homeless people surveyed by the researchers had heard of the response team. Members of the team reported struggling with staffing shortages during the expansion, as they attempted to cover exponentially more calls. They also reported difficulty in connecting clients with other services and resources in Portland.
There remained a disconnect between PSR staff and other first responders. Though the response team operates under Portland Fire & Rescue, the report noted little familiarity between PSR staff, fire personnel and police, which could perhaps be bridged through training.
"There are clear and compelling reasons to keep Portland Street Response housed with Portland Fire & Rescue," the report said. "However, the relationship between PSR and PF&R has been fraught due to differences in culture between the programs."
In surveying members of the wider community, the report found that almost half did not feel comfortable calling 911. Many cited concerns about delayed service or a lack of response, and said they were concerned that calling 911 might negatively impact other community members, especially people of color and people experiencing homelessness.
"It is critical that community members understand what PSR is and how to access it," the report said. "There remains work to be done, especially as the program has expanded to new areas of the city where it does not yet have an established footprint."
There also remained an issue, outlined in the prior report, with ambiguity over which calls PSR should be dispatched on. The team has been limited from responding to calls inside homes, calls involving suicide, and some calls involving severe cases of mental illness.
"It is also important to revisit call criteria to ensure that PSR is being dispatched appropriately to fire calls that have a behavioral health component; and to address instances in which PSR is being dispatched or requested for calls outside the scope of their services," the report stated.
Portland Street Response was championed by the city's fire bureau commissioner, Jo Ann Hardesty, who was defeated by Rene Gonzalez in November. Gonzalez has been a vocal supporter of more traditional emergency responders, earning the endorsements of Portland's police and firefighter unions. It remains to be seen how the program will fare when he assumes office in January.
A full 2-year evaluation report of PSR's performance by the same team of PSU researchers is expected in early summer of 2023.