The Board of Commissioners on Thursday, Sept. 26, approved preliminary plans for a first-of-its-kind behavioral health resource center in downtown Portland at 333 S.W. Park Ave. Read a one-pager about the project here.
Thursday’s vote authorizes design development and pre-construction to move forward on the 24,000-square-foot facility and adjacent 7,000-square-foot plaza, which will be operated by the Health Department in partnership with the Joint Office of Homeless Services. The facility will offer respite, in particular, for people experiencing homelessness downtown — providing laundry and showers, food, peer-led resources, and shelter and transitional housing.
“This structure will be a game-changer,” Commissioner Sharon Meieran said Thursday.
Meieran, an emergency room doctor who has championed behavioral health reform, said she has long been frustrated by the limitations of the emergency medical system to treat people with mental illness.
“This type of facility is something I’ve thought about for a long time, seeing people coming through the emergency department, taking care of them, and having them leave and have nowhere to go,” she said.
The new behavioral health resource center will take pressure off other systems, such as emergency departments and jails.
“Those are the least effective places to take care of these underlying issues and the most expensive,” Meieran said. “In the ER I have yet to take care of someone who is in a behavioral health crisis who left feeling like we actually helped.”
Through their Joint Office, Multnomah County and the city of Portland have doubled the County’s emergency shelter capacity since 2015, and improved shelters so they offer more services and better connect people to housing and treatment.
But amid an ongoing housing affordability crisis, compounded by years of federal disinvestment in housing and health care, the number of chronically homeless individuals has grown faster than the number of people experiencing homelessness overall. Among those who are chronically homeless — people with a disabling condition who’ve been homeless for at least a year, more than 50 percent report experiencing either a substance use disorder or a mental illness.
“The housing crisis forces these individuals onto the streets, where they have unnecessary contact with the jail system, hospitals and crisis services,” Ebony Clarke, director of the County’s Mental Health and Addiction Services Division, said during a briefing on the project before the vote, on Tuesday, Sept. 24. “Without adequate services and facilities, people often find themselves waiting in the emergency department system, the state hospital and floundering in the jail system. It’s not productive, and it’s not effective.”
The proposed behavioral health resource center seeks to address their most basic needs for food, warmth and shelter while offering connections to treatment and long-term housing.
Soon after the Board of Commissioners approved the purchase at 333 S.W. Park Ave. in January, the Health Department brought together mental health providers and people with lived experience to discuss facility design and programming.
“This part is exciting, as we get to dream and innovate,” Clarke said Tuesday. “It’s been really great to have a peer stakeholder group to provide feedback along the way.”
Together, with more than two dozen peer nonprofit and community partners, Clarke’s team began designing a low-barrier day center and shelter to serve 125 to 150 people.
The first and second levels will support a day center, staffed by 10 peer specialists. Open daily from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., the center will provide people experiencing homelessness who also have a substance use disorder or mental illness a place to get warm and dry.
The center will provide lockers for guests to store their belongings while they eat a meal or take a shower. The center will also provide washers and dryers, a living room where people can sit down to watch a TV show, and computers for people to check their email and connect with loved ones and providers.
Multipurpose rooms will host support groups, visits from mobile barbers, art therapy classes, and a clothing closet. Community navigators will help guests connect to employment opportunities and social services, while medical staff members provide basic health needs such as wound care.
Commissioner Susheela Jayapal she’s excited about the communal space that will allow folks to create a social network of support through peer services.
“We need this. And we need it downtown, not 14 miles outside downtown,” she said. “It provides an alternative to law enforcement, which sucks people deeper down the spiral.”
The center’s third level will house 42 beds of mixed-gender emergency shelter, with guests referred from crisis providers, existing shelters, emergency departments and police. During shorter-term stays in those shelter beds, behavioral health providers will determine guests’ acuity of need and identify longer-term housing and treatment options.
A fourth level will provide 20 beds of transitional housing, where residents will stay for up to three months while they engage in treatment and while staff help identify options for ongoing treatment and permanent housing.
Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson said she’s thrilled to support a center that provides people with the services they need in an atmosphere where they feel welcome.
“It’s been a long time coming and needed. I encourage you, as we look across our system, for folks who are struggling in other systems, who have chronic health issues, that we look for them first to give them a place to be more successful,” she said. “I’m excited that the County is taking advantage of this opportunity and moving forward with this work.”
Multnomah County’s Facilities and Property Management Division began a preliminary evaluation of seismic and renovation options last fall. That’s when developer Tom Cody offered to sell Multnomah County his vacant Bushong & Co. Building at 333 S.W. Park Ave.
After seismic and environmental reviews, comparisons to other available properties, and evaluation for programming, Commissioners approved the purchase in January of the building for $4.34 million and an adjacent parking lot for $1. 5 million. The project is projected to cost an additional $15 million to $20 million. The Board set aside $11 million in the 2020 fiscal year budget for the first phase of development, with Chair Deborah Kafoury committed to funding the rest in future budgets.
This summer, the County solicited bids for construction, and by September had built a team composed of Carleton Hart Architecture, Mortenson Construction and Klosh Group, which is serving as the owner’s representative. The project team laid out plans to engage a diverse workforce, with support from the county’s Construction Diversity and Equity Fund, and to seek LEED Gold environmental certification.
“So we have that team assembled and are ready to move forward,” Brett Taute, a Facilities project manager, said during Tuesday’s briefing. “We’re looking to move immediately into schematic design and development and considering a seismic structural package starting early next year. Our goal is to complete the project within 24 months.”
Commissioner Lori Stegmann applauded the emphasis on environmental building standards and the plan to leverage the Construction Diversity Equity Fund to support workers who are women or who come from communities of color.
“I love this project,” she said, “and am so proud we’re moving forward.”