September 20, 2019

Chair Deborah Kafoury speaks at a press event where Portland Street Response survey results were unveiled Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019.
Chair Deborah Kafoury and Commissioner Susheela Jayapal spoke Thursday, Sept. 19, in support of work by Portland officials and Street Roots to develop a better model for helping first responders work with people experiencing homelessness.

Supporters of the effort, called Portland Street Response, unveiled survey results from more than 180 people with lived experience who were asked what a new street response program should provide.

Street Roots worked with Portland State University’s Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative to analyze the findings. Dozens of respondents said they wanted to be treated with compassion and thought trained mental health and medical workers — not police — should respond to calls.

Others said they wanted some help merely surviving, implicitly speaking of all the things they’d have in homes of their own. 

“Look at what people said when someone asked what kinds of things they’d like the Portland Street Response to provide: Food. Water. A safe place to put their things. Hygiene products,” Chair Kafoury said. “I see people asking for the basics that so many of us take for granted in our own lives: a kitchen, a pantry, a closet, a bathroom — otherwise known as a home.” 

Commissioner Jayapal said relying on police alone to triage and respond to calls touching on homelessness is “unfair, ineffective, and expensive.”

Commissioner Susheela Jayapal speaks at a press event where Portland Street Response survey results were unveiled Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019.
“We need another response to calls that are not crime-related; and we have to create a system that helps, or at least doesn’t further harm, the people we’re responding to,” she said. “We can’t create that system without input from those directly affected, which is why the work of the community engagement team has been so critical.”

Work to create a new response model — led by City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty and Mayor Ted Wheeler — is in its early stages. Work groups whose members include staff from Commissioner Jayapal’s office, the Chair’s office and other County employees will present plans for a pilot project in November. 

The effort stems from reporting by The Oregonian that found more than half of all arrests in 2017 involved someone experiencing homelessness.

Street Roots answered those findings with a plan that draws from decades of experience in Eugene, Oregon, where mental health professionals and others respond to some 911 calls instead of police.

Work on the pilot project comes as Multnomah County moves ahead with plans to open, as soon as 2021, a first-of-its-kind behavioral health resource center downtown.

The resource center, in a newly purchased building at 333 S.W. Park Ave., would offer showers and laundry, drop-in space, peer resources, shelter and transitional housing. And it could one day work alongside the street response pilot.

Read full remarks from Chair Kafoury, and then Commissioner Jayapal, below.


Chair Deborah Kafoury: It’s great to be here. The work that’s gone into these early steps around the Portland Street Response highlights the power of partnerships when it comes to addressing homelessness.

And for the second time this week, your governments are standing together, supporting the kind of crucial work we can’t afford to do alone The survey conducted by Portland State and Street Roots reinforces the fact that we can do a better job helping people forced to live outside. We can respond with more compassion and skill. 

But it reinforced something else for me.

The real solution for someone living outside is as simple as ever. It’s a home. 

Look at what people said when someone asked what kinds of things they’d like the Portland Street Response to provide:

Food. Water. A safe place to put their things. Hygiene products. I see people asking for the basics that so many of us take for granted in our own lives: a kitchen, a pantry, a closet, a bathroom — otherwise known as a home. When so many of our neighbors don’t have those things, it shouldn’t be a surprise they are living under constant stress. And it shouldn’t be a surprise that we have to help our first responders by finding new ways to help those who are enduring that stress. 

We have been working for a long time now to help more people leave our streets once and for all.

We have doubled our shelter capacity and paired support services with hundreds of affordable apartments. 

And on just one night this winter, we helped more than 12,400 people — who might have been homeless otherwise — pay the rent in homes of their own.

But this housing market... this job market... this federal government — with its cruel, threadbare safety net… they aren’t making this work any easier.

We can see that for every person we’ve helped off our streets, someone else who can’t make rent is taking their place. 

We can’t open the door to a home with one hand — while pushing someone away from that doorway with the other.  

I want to thank Street Roots and Portland State for shedding further light on the needs of the folks living on our streets. The more we can give them a voice and input into the policy process the better. And I’m looking forward to the further development of the Street Response model. 

I stand with you as a partner. Because our partnership — City and County, combining our resources — has been essential to the progress we’ve made. And there’s no better time to push ahead.

There are some powerful people in this community — people who should know better — echoing the hurtful words of Donald Trump. They want to warehouse people. They want to give up on housing people and claim victory by shunting people out of sight.

We can’t let that happen. We can’t lose our compassion. We can’t sacrifice our vision of a community where everyone deserves to feel safe.

Thank you.


Mayor Ted Wheeler, from left, Commissioner Sharon Meieran, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty and Commissioner Susheela Jayapal listen as Portland Street Response survey results are unveiled Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019.

Commissioner Susheela Jayapal: Good morning. 

I got involved with this because of my conviction that we need an alternative to calls about people experiencing homelessness.

For too long, we’ve fallen back on the police to respond to a crisis, which is, at its root, about housing — with additional complications arising from mental health and addiction issues.

That reliance on the police as first responders has resulted in the disproportionate arrest rate of homeless people, often worsening their situation rather than resolving the underlying problems.

All systems use the tools they have been designed to us, so it’s cruel to punish people for being homeless, or for suffering from mental illness or addiction.

It is unfair, ineffective, and expensive to expect the police to provide the full range of necessary responses to those issues.

We need another response to calls that are not crime-related; and we have to create a system that helps, or at least doesn’t further harm, the people we’re responding to.

We can’t create that response without input from those directly affected, which is why the work of the community engagement team has been so critical.

I want to thank all those who participated, particularly the Street Roots vendors and all those who did the direct outreach.

I also want to call out the breadth of the engagement conducted by the team.

This system is not going to work unless it meets the needs of all who use it, and so it was important that the team sought input from people experiencing homelessness, businesses and others who use 911, as well as from service providers.

I was able to attend a listening session with service providers at Central City Concern, which yielded important information about the very specific and difficult situations they face when working with people who are not only experiencing homelessness, but also experiencing difficult mental, physical, and behavioral health issues. 

It’s also important to note that the community engagement team is not finished with its outreach.

I want to thank them for the work they’ve done to date; and I look forward to the group continuing to engage with all parts of our community as we shape and implement this pilot.