The History of Portland Street Response

News Article
From an idea, to an advocacy campaign, to a single team in Lents, to citywide expansion, this is the story of Portland Street Response - our newest unarmed 911 response within Portland Fire & Rescue which "assists people experiencing non-life-threatening mental health and behavioral health issues."
Green and Blue "Portland Street Response" logo

2019 - 2020: Advocacy, Community Outreach, City Work Group, and Program Development

Shortly after being elected to the Portland City Council, Commissioner Hardesty got to work exploring her campaign idea to develop an unarmed, alternative first response option to ensure we are sending the right first responders to the right 911 call.  Our first response system hadn't seen a major update in over 100 years and needed a more effective, compassionate response for those experiencing a mental or behavioral health crisis. 

Commissioner Hardesty is talking to two Portland Fire & Rescue employees in a Fire Station. A red Portland Fire & Rescue truck can be seen in the background.

Commissioner Hardesty was assigned Portland Fire & Rescue, where as Fire Commissioner she learned about innovative programs within the bureau that were already trying to address some of the unmet needs within our first response system. This led her to believe Portland Fire & Rescue was the best place for this new first response option to be housed under.

Commissioner Hardesty is posing with Rabbi Dr. Ariel Stone during a trip to Eugene, Oregon to learn more about their CAHOOTS program. Behind them is a van that reads "CAHOOTS Crisis Assistance. Helping Out on the Streets."

Meanwhile, Street Roots wrote extensively about the need for a better first response for those experiencing houselessness, as well as those experiencing a mental or behavior health crisis. That led to Street Roots developing a blueprint called "Portland Street Response" and launching an advocacy campaign behind the concept.

Commissioner Hardesty smiles for a picture with Street Roots Executive Director Kaia Sands & Street Roots Vendor Program Director DeVon Pouncy

Commissioner Hardesty endorsed the Street Roots campaign and along with Portland Fire & Rescue, began working with Street Roots and additional community partners to build off the idea. 

Early outreach and development included:

  • Listening sessions with community members experiencing houselessness
  • Surveying our neighbors living on the streets
  • Surveying business owners
  • Learning from experts in the field, including visits & a consultation contract with the inspiring CAHOOTS program in Eugene.
  • Logo design contest

Much of the outreach work with Portland's houseless community was summarized in the report "Believe Our Stories & Listen," which was a collaborative effort that included the Portland Street Response Community Outreach Workgroup, Portland State University Homeless Research & Action Collaborative, Street Roots, Mapping Action Collective, Street Books, Yellow Brick Road, Right 2 Survive, and Sisters of the Road. 

Collage of various Portland Street Response Outreach activities. Photos include a logo design contest flyer, houseless community listening sessions, and a training session for those that helped PSR survey folks living on the streets.

Commissioner Hardesty was provided an opportunity to do a Ted Talk about the concept and development of Portland Street Response. 

To develop Portland Street Response, the offices of Mayor Wheeler and Commissioner Hardesty formed a work group that also included representatives from Portland Fire & Rescue, Portland Police Bureau, Office of Management & Finance, Multnomah County, PSU Homeless Research Collaborative, service providers, houseless advocates and more. 

After receiving initial pilot funding, getting Portland Street Response started ran into a delay when the City of Portland implemented a hiring freeze due to the uncertain economic forecast at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet when the time came, PSR found a flood of applicants that were excited to join the team. The Portland Street Response model sets a new standard of pay and benefits for this traditionally undervalued social service work in a field of work made up predominantly of women.  

By February of 2021, Portland Street Response was ready to launch.

February 2021

The first Portland Street Response team set out on their first shift at 10 am on February 16th, 2021. The team started taking calls dispatched from 911 to offer an unarmed response for people suffering mental and behavioral health challenges. 

Picture of 4 members of the Portland Street Response team posing with their hands together on the day the pilot program launched.
Photo by Portland Street Response

Feb – March 2021

For the first two months of the pilot, the team responded to calls solely in the Lents neighborhood from Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. This first shift was composed of a firefighter paramedic, a licensed clinical social worker and two community health workers. 

April 2021

By this time, we had enough information and experience to know that we could increase the scope of the program and we expanded our boundaries to serve more areas. The pilot began using the boundaries in the Lents neighborhood serviced by Portland Fire & Rescue (PF&R) Fire Station 11 and on April 1, 2021, the team began responding within eight Portland Police Bureau (PPB) districts in the greater Lents area. 

On April 1, the PSR team also started responding to additional call types: for a person either outside or inside of a publicly accessible space such as a business, store, public lobby, etc. Prior to April 1, the team only responded to calls for a person outside. The team still does not currently respond within private residences.  

 Additionally, the team also started co-responding with PF&R on certain public burning calls (such as outside warming and cooking fires) to offer wrap-around service assistance. 

Photo of the first PSR team, sitting on steps, smiling at the camera.
Photo by Portland Street Response

October 2021

Portland State University, the outside evaluator hired by the City to determine if PSR is meeting its goals, released its six-month report and presented the results to City Council. 

Graphic from PSU Homeless Research & Action Collaborative that highlights a statistic from a 6 month evaluation of PSR. The graphic reads "4.6% reduction in calls traditionally dispatched to police in the Portland Street Response service area and service times
Image from Portland State University Homeless Research & Action Collaborative.

Dr. Greg Townley, director of research at PSU’s Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative and the lead evaluator, reported that the investigators believe Portland Street Response is well on its way to becoming a citywide solution to responding to 911 and non-emergency calls involving unhoused people and people experiencing a mental health crisis. 

Key findings included: 
● A 4.6% reduction in total calls traditionally responded to by police. 
● A 22.5% reduction in police response on non-emergency welfare checks as well as dispatches coded as “unwanted persons” and “suspicious persons” calls. 
● A 11.6% reduction in fire department activity on behavioral health calls and illegal burn calls. 
● Clients rated PSR 5 on a scale of 1-5 with 5 being the best. 

Three recently hired Portland Street Response employees smile for the camera.
Photo by Portland Street Response

November 2021

PSR embarked on its next expansion with the launch of its night shift, which added increased coverage hours of 6 pm – 2:30 am Thursday through Sunday and additional team members including a Firefighter/EMT, a Mental Health Crisis Responder, and two Peer Support Specialists. 

Both shifts started responding in a new expanded boundary that corresponds to Portland Police Bureau’s East Precinct, increasing the boundary from 13 square miles to 36 square miles. 

In November, Portland City Council voted to release $2 million in funding to PSR as part of the Fall Budget Monitoring Process, or Fall BMP. 

Collage showing Portland Street Response employees on the job, performing community outreach, training, and more.
Photos by Portland Street Response

February 2022

Portland Street Response celebrated its first year in service with a video documenting the progress Portland Street Response had made since it first launched in February of 2021.

March 2022

Portland Street Response expanded citywide on Monday, March 28th and is now a response option for 911 calls every day of the week in every part of Portland between the hours of 10am - 8pm. A press conference was held at Fire Station 1 in Old Town to commemorate the occasion and inform the public about this expanded service area and new hours.  

Commissioner Hardesty speaks at a press conference to announce the citywide expansion of Portland Street Response. Behind her is PSR Program Manager Robyn Burek & Portland Fire & Rescue Chief Sarah Boone.
Photo by Portland Fire & Rescue

What’s Next? 

This April of 2022, Portland State University will put out a one year evaluation of PSR and we will take the recommendations in the report into consideration as we build the next phase of the program.  

While we are not ready to go 24/7 Citywide in March, we hope to get funding in the annual budget to establish a 24/7 response program in all neighborhoods in Portland. 

Graphic reads: "Portland Street Response Budget Timeline. FY 20-21: $4.8m. Council allocated $4.8 million to a reserve fund on an annual basis. FY 21-22: $1.9m. Of the $4.8 million, $1.9 million was budgeted for PSR's pilot year to fund 2 vans spread across 2 shifts: a day and night shift. Oct 21 Fall BMP: $2.9m. Council approved PSR's request to add an additional 4 vans before the end of FY 21-22. The amount requested was $1.08 million, bringing PSR's total FY 21-22 budget to $2.9 million. FY 22-23 request

To Portland, I thank you for all of your support this year as we moved through our pilot. We look forward to serving even more corners of the community as we move into our year two. 

We’d like to thank the community for welcoming us and supporting us as we introduced a new first responder system to the City of Portland. 

Portland Street Response Team Photo
Photo by Portland Street Response