By Shane Dixon Kavanaugh
Portland’s experimental new program to provide non-police assistance to people experiencing homelessness or a mental health crisis is shaping up to be one of the few potential flash points in the city’s budget for next year.
The debate is over how quickly Portland’s unarmed street response program — which launched as a small pilot in the Lents neighborhood earlier this year — should expand to other parts of the city, bucking the public safety status quo.
Mayor Ted Wheeler proposed Friday that the city immediately spend nearly $1 million to keep the Lents team at work but wait until an unspecified future time to begin spending another $2.6 million held in check to expand the Portland Street Response program later.
That’s a fraction of what Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty asked to be made immediately available, given that the City Council voted unanimously last June to reallocate $4.8 million from the Portland Police Bureau budget to the non-police street response team.
The five-person Lents team has only been in operation since mid-February, leaving roughly $3.6 million authorized unspent.
Matt McNally, communications strategist for Hardesty, said Tuesday the commissioner’s office plans to submit an amendment to the mayor’s proposed budget that would provide the full funding for Portland Street Response.
“We feel really confident we have the support of the council and are hopeful to have the support of the mayor as well,” McNally said. “Our preference is to pass this amendment unanimously.”
Jim Middaugh, a spokesman for Wheeler, said the mayor has long supported a non-police response to those in crisis and was in conversation with fellow commissioners and their staffs about what the right investment should be for next year.
“We are united in the goal of providing safe, effective service to people experiencing mental health and other related crises,” Middaugh said.
“The mayor’s proposed budget fully funds continuation of this pilot through the next fiscal year and proposes council check-ins at the 6- and 12-month marks to learn how the pilot is performing and make data-informed decisions about full implementation.”
Commissioner Mingus Mapps said Tuesday he backed Wheeler’s plan for the program, arguing it “will increase its effectiveness in the long run.”
“As the Commissioner-in-Charge of the Bureau of Emergency Communications, I’ve had an inside view observing this program roll out and it’s clear that we have a lot more to learn,” Mapps said.
Will Howell, a spokesman for Commissioner Carmen Rubio, said Tuesday that Rubio would support a proposal to immediately increase funding for Portland Street Response.
Commissioner Dan Ryan’s office declined to comment for this story.
On Wednesday, the City Council will consider paying Portland State University more than $200,000 to conduct a 15-month evaluation of the program.
To date, Portland Street Response has responded to 100 calls in Lents, according to the program’s online dashboard. The program sends a team of one paramedic and one social worker to each of these calls.
The mayor’s go-slow approach has already drawn opposition among leading homeless advocates in Portland.
Kaia Sand, executive director of Street Roots, wrote in a column Tuesday that Wheeler’s proposal was too limited in scope.
“This is not the time to short-change a non-police response Portlanders have demanded,” she said.
Apart from differences on the pace of that program’s expansions, the city’s five commissioners are largely in agreement with the mayor’s formal spending plan, which he shaped with input from city agencies and his fellow councilors.
The City Council will hold a public hearing on the proposed budget Wednesday from 6 to 8 p.m.
A final vote is scheduled for June 17.
Shane Dixon Kavanaugh: 503-294-7632
Email at email@example.com
Follow on Twitter @shanedkavanaugh
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