As construction of the Behavioral Health Resource Center nears completion, Multnomah County has hired a social worker with lived experience to oversee operations and support the peer-led nonprofit chosen this spring to staff the facility’s Day Center.
The Multnomah County Health Department has contracted with the Mental Health & Addiction Association of Oregon to run the Behavioral Health Resource Center’s day space and selected Alexandra Appleton, formerly the shelter equity and inclusion analyst for the Joint Office of Homeless Services, to administer the critical new project.
“The County is striving to live by the principle of 'Nothing about us without us' in many of our programs," said Deborah Kafoury, Multnomah County Chair. "That's why we're so excited to launch the BHRC with staff who bring a wealth of wisdom and compassion due in part to their lived experience.”
The Behavioral Health Resource Center will support people experiencing houselessness and behavioral health challenges downtown. This new facility will include three interconnected programs: a behavioral health shelter, a bridge housing program, and a two-story day center with drop-in services. The Resource Center will support as many as 200 people at any given time across the three programs.
The day center is slated to open this fall, with the shelter and transitional housing planned to open in 2023. The day center will be staffed by the Mental Health & Addiction Association of Oregon. Contractors to staff the other two programs have not yet been selected.
The Mental Health & Addiction Association of Oregon is a non-profit that supports people with substance use and mental health challenges. Its staff is composed of people in recovery from addiction or who have lived experience with mental illness, and they walk clients through systems that they know from their own journeys can feel overwhelming and complicated. That might mean helping a person secure stable housing, sign up for the Oregon Health Plan and food benefits, make it to a court hearing on time, or simply find recovery meetings in their neighborhood.
The Association’s Executive Director Janie Gullickson was a member of the Behavioral Health Resource Center’s peer stakeholder group, one of a number of committees that informed the project’s design, construction and programming. She said recovery providers had long discussed the need for a low-barrier safer space for people to be themselves, even in an active substance use disorder or if they had an untreated mental illness.
“When the County decided to invest in a day center, it seemed like a wonderful idea. But for people with lived experience serving people who are still struggling, the collective dream was to turn the model on its head,” Gullickson recalled. “Rather than open a clinical program with peer support, the stakeholder group recommended we open a peer-led program that is clinically supported.”
Appleton, the incoming program administrator, also served on the stakeholder committee.
“When I came to this space, there was a whole diverse group of people. I had never seen a room as diverse as that,” Appleton said with a laugh. “I said, ‘Oh this is the spot to be.’ I found out about the peer stakeholder group and found out about the initial vision being peer-led. I thought, ‘This is fundamental.’”
Appleton was born and raised in North Portland and identifies as a biracial black woman. Appleton is a survivor of homelessness, incarceration, and domestic and sexual violence. She’s also living a life in recovery. Since graduating with a sociology degree from Portland State University, she has worked to create a safer, trauma-informed, and culturally responsive homelessness response system in the Portland metro area.
Over the years, she has held leadership positions at Transition Projects and Self Enhancement Inc. More recently, she worked as the Joint Office of Homeless Services’ first shelter equity and inclusion analyst.
But Appleton has provided leadership across the County, working on the Workforce Equity Strategic Plan and the Intentionally Leading with Race Initiative, while also advising on strategic planning to prevent and end homelessness. In addition to her social service career, Appleton continues to volunteer in advocacy campaigns to raise awareness of domestic and sexual violence, systems of incarceration, substance use, behavioral health, houselessness, and racism in Oregon.
“Alexandra is perfect for this role,” said Christa Jones, senior manager for the Health Department’s Community Mental Health Program. “She brings lived experience, insight, wisdom, passion and humor to this work. She lives the values of the BHRC.”
As administrator of the Behavioral Health Resource Center, Appleton will work alongside providers and serve as liaison to the project’s advisory board and to County leadership. She will also build relationships in the community to enhance the Resource Center’s services.
“We really wanted this to be consumer-led, culturally responsive, and accessible,” Appleton said. “This is a perfect opportunity to create something that has never existed here. So many people are invested in this, on the ground, doing the work.”
Gullickson said she’s excited to work alongside Appleton and see their shared vision for the Resource Center come true.
“Alexandra has been involved with the stakeholder group since day one. It’s thrilling. We know someone will also be involved in day-to-day operations,” she said. “The County is not going to be a remote funder.”
Appleton said she’s also looking forward to the partnership, after years of seeing MHAAO as a community leader in providing peer-led services.
“The mission and values of MHAAO is part of the reason I’m here today. These are services people will need, not just on the street, but throughout their lives. For that to be our first contract, I feel very confident.”