Greg Townley, Portland State University – Findings From a Mixed-Methods Evaluation of an Alternative First Responder Program
On Portland State University Week: Should the police be among the first responders for certain 911 calls?
Greg Townley, associate professor of community psychology, says other methods may be more beneficial in certain situations.
Dr. Greg Townley is an Associate Professor of Community Psychology at Portland State University and co-founder of PSU’s Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative. He received his Ph.D. in Clinical-Community Psychology from the University of South Carolina, his M.A. in Psychology from the University of South Carolina, and B.A.s in Psychology and Africana Studies from North Carolina State University. Dr. Townley’s research examines community inclusion and supportive housing of individuals experiencing serious mental illnesses and homelessness.
Findings From a Mixed-Methods Evaluation of an Alternative First Responder Program
At a time when cities across the country are rethinking how public safety is structured, Portland, Oregon decided to try something new and our research center, the Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative, evaluated the results to see if this model could be effective.
Advocates in Portland lobbied for a non-police response for non-criminal 911 calls involving people experiencing homelessness or a mental health crisis. The resulting program, the Portland Street Response, launched in 2021 and consists of a firefighter paramedic, a licensed mental health crisis therapist, and two community health workers.
According to a mixed-methods program evaluation, Portland Street Response demonstrated success in meeting its outcome goals during the first six months. The program demonstrated a 4.6% reduction in total calls traditionally responded to by police in the pilot program’s service location and operating hours; a 22.5% reduction in police response on non-emergency welfare checks as well as dispatches coded as “unwanted persons” and “suspicious persons” calls; and an 11.6% reduction in fire department activity on behavioral health calls and illegal burn calls. Only 14 calls (3.7%) required transport to the ER, and none of the calls resulted in arrests. In follow-up visits with clients, community health workers made 125 referrals for a wide range of services and helped six people find permanent housing.
The evaluation included a survey in collaboration with Street Roots, a local street newspaper, to understand how the program worked for those most impacted. Comments from people experiencing homelessness described the care they received: “They were friendly, treated me like a human being;” “They were loving and talked with my friend who needed help;” “They put medicine on a wound, gave me food and water, and asked if I needed anything else”; “My friend lived because of them.”
Early signs of success show how this model could help inform new strategies in public safety both locally and at a national level.