More Portland Street Response workers go union

Portland Street Response pairs mental health response workers and peer support specialists with EMTs and paramedics. | PHOTO COURTESY PORTLAND STREET RESPONSE

By COLIN STAUB

Two classifications of workers at Portland’s newly formed Portland Street Response are now represented by Professional & Technical Employees Local 17 (PROTEC17).

Housed within the Portland Fire Bureau, Portland Street Response started operations in 2021. It consists of unarmed crews that respond to 911 calls about people who are experiencing mental health crises. Each crew includes one mental health crisis responder, one paramedic or EMT, and a peer support specialist when one is available. The paramedics and EMTs were already members of Portland Fire Fighters’ Association. Now the peer support specialists and mental health response workers are union too.

One peer support specialist told the Labor Press that workers are concerned about inconsistent training, poor communication between management and workers, and sudden changes to their daily job duties. That’s why they contacted Seattle-headquartered PROTEC17 to talk about unionizing. 

On Sept. 23, four weeks after the first union card was signed, the City voluntarily recognized the union. They become part of PROTEC17’s existing 900-member City bargaining unit, which includes professional employees in many other City bureaus. Jessica Olivas, a PROTEC17 union organizer who worked on the campaign, said the workers will be added into PROTEC17’s current City contract, which runs through June 2025.

Unarmed responders

Proposed and now overseen by Portland City Commissioner JoAnn Hardesty, Portland Street Response is modeled on a Eugene program called CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets). Workers trained in behavioral health and medical assistance are dispatched for 911 calls when there’s no criminal intent, fire or medical emergency.

The first team of Portland Street Response workers hit the streets in February 2021 through a pilot project in the Lents neighborhood, and responded to 13 calls that month. It expanded later in 2021 to the entire Portland Police Bureau East Precinct, and citywide in March 2022. By April 2022, 911 was referring over 800 calls a month to Portland Street Response, according to city-reported data.

The crews dress differently than police or firefighters: They wear a T-shirt with the Portland Street Response logo, and jeans or cargo pants, and don’t wear bulletproof vests. They provide food, dry clothes or non-emergency medical care. Peer support specialists, who’ve overcome addiction and/or homelessness themselves, can also help people get onto housing lists, get ID, get a mailing address.

Portland City Council this year approved a staff increase from 23 full-time equivalent positions to 58, and increased the program’s budget from $3.4 million to $12.7 million.

The union effort at Portland Street Response came at the same time workers at CAHOOTS in Eugene were organizing with Teamsters Local 206. There, workers also demonstrated unanimous support for union representation. A similar Seattle-area social services organization, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, also unionized with PROTEC17 in July.

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