The outreach van pulled up at Southwest 3rd and Couch in Old Town at around 11 a.m. on Dec. 27. Like so many Monday mornings, Multnomah County’s Department of Community Justice’s Mental Health Mobile Unit provides “drop in’’ service to people regularly reached by the team and others who may need a lifeline. But this week, that lifeline is even more urgent with frigid temperatures forecast into the new year.
“We’re trying to re-engage people who are on community supervision, parole and probation, but in addition, we’re also working with anybody who may need these basic services like food, clothing, and blankets,” said John McVay, a sworn community justice manager with Multnomah County’s Department of Community Justice. The department (DCJ) provides community supervision for people involved in the justice system.
“We touched base and gave supplies to at least 125 people and provided 75 meals provided by the County’s Juvenile Services Division's Food Services to make sure folks have their basic needs met and have information about the shelters,” he stressed.
Multnomah County’s Mental Health Mobile Unit is one of multiple teams conducting outreach during the prolonged cold stretch that began Christmas Day. Organizations such as Cascadia Behavioral Health Outreach Teams, JOIN Night Outreach and Cultivate Initiatives in East Multnomah County and mutual aid groups have also been working hard to reach people who may be at risk from the cold.
The outreach has resulted in the distribution of socks, ponchos, mylar sleeping bags, hand warmers, hoodie sweatshirts, pants, gloves, hats, blankets and more — much of it distributed through the Joint Office of Homeless Services Supply Center.
But the work, McVay says, goes well beyond physical needs.
“The goal is to go to the same spot on the same day — at the same time, because part of what we’re doing is building relationships with the people we’re working with,” he said. “Part of what is really important is connecting with people; leveraging relationships with people to encourage them to access shelters.”
Severe weather shelters are open in Multnomah County and will remain open 24 hours a day as long as the County meets thresholds it considers unsafe.
On Monday, the four-person mobile team not only provided information on warming centers, but also transport to those who have difficulty with navigation to their desired location. And like humans, freezing temperatures can also take a toll on pets. That’s why the Mental Health Unit team also collaborates with Multnomah County Animal Services, providing blankets and pet food for people who are pet owners.
The unit’s mobile van is stocked with hand sanitizer, first-aid supplies, masks, hydration packets and hygiene kits, gloves, sleeping bags, tents and phones for people to use — as well as the opioid reversal drug, Narcan. It offers storage for goods and heating. The van’s awning allows people to hook up to wi-fi and workstations, with two charging stations capable of rapidly charging several mobile devices at a time.
The unit was created to reach people in different ways amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but is now reaching people amid extreme heat and cold weather events.
It’s an attempt to meet people where they’re at and change the way services are delivered, says McVay.
“A lot of times people have an image of parole and probation as only about taking people to custody,” said McVay. “While we hold people accountable, what we also do is help people re-engage and move on with their lives. We develop relationships with people that we’re working with.
We’re connecting people to the service."