Among the employees who helped launch the Call Center was mental health consultant Mark Summit.
“At the beginning, we were mostly doing crisis counseling for people who needed that immediate support — and that's still central to our work,” said Summit. “Through the years, we’ve become more of the hub of the mental health system for Multnomah County.”
Staff crammed into cubbies of a downtown office building. They hunched behind clunky old monitors, flipped through binders stuffed with pages of resources, and tripped over twisted cords from phones, headsets and computers. Summit said he was grateful to work shoulder to shoulder with his new colleagues, to learn how other providers approached callers and issues. It made him a better counselor.
Over the years the Call Center expanded its reach and mission. In 2012, the Call Center began helping people connect to behavioral health benefits. In 2017, the Call Center began conducting suicide risk assessments for every caller and folded in Washington County residents into its user area.
In 2018, the Call Center added a referral line for the Crisis Assessment and Treatment Center and the following year it added a referral for Rockwood Respite, which is a crisis stabilization center.
The team has expanded to include 24 acute care coordinators, nine on-call acute care coordinators, two supervisors, a manager and an office assistant. Together, with support from the County’s Behavioral Health Division, our call center team works 24 hours a day to help people articulate their concerns, explore their options and connect to community services.
“They do all of this with warmth and compassion,” said Health Department Director Ebony Clarke. “More than that, they bring sound clinical judgment and a really robust knowledge of our local continuum of care.”
In the past 23 months, the Call Center has played an integral role in the County’s response to COVID-19 and other emergencies. For example, the Center managed requests for, and distribution of, pandemic assistance for Black, Indigenous and other communities of color. That assistance helped cover basic needs such as rent, utilities, transportation and healthcare. The Call Center also established a line for voluntary isolation motel referrals and intakes. During wildfires, heat events, freezes and with COVID-19 variants, the Call Center has consistently responded to the needs of the community.
“It’s been quite a ride,” Summit said of the past 20 years.
“At times, at the end of a long week, and especially since the pandemic, I have those days when I don’t know if I want to come in,” Summit added.
But he does. Because of what he gets from the job, and because of what he can give.
There's a unique intimacy in a phone exchange, during moments of crisis when people are often more ready for change. It’s an opportunity to help people make big changes in their lives.
The work has kept Summit on his toes. During his first decade with the Call Center, not a week went by when he didn’t face a new challenge, like Forrest Gump and his famous box of chocolates. “You never know what you’re gonna get.”
As it enters its 21st year, the Call Center is averaging nearly 1,400 calls per week. And while it’s mission has remained steadfast, the scope of support and services has expanded.
“As we look forward to the next 20 years, we will continue to grow our partnerships and expand our services,” said Christa Jones, who oversees adult safety net programs for the Behavioral Health Division. “But one thing that will never change is that commitment to provide compassionate, trauma-informed and culturally responsive services to each and every member of our community.”
Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury extended her thanks to the behavioral health specialists who have answered the call.
"For two decades, our Call Center staff has offered understanding, grace and a way forward to people going through the hardest moments of their lives. And their work has never been more important than in the last two years, as they've helped community members endure the profound trauma and losses of the pandemic.
Their impact goes beyond the number of calls they've taken and the referrals they've made. It's found in the hope they extend to those who feel hopeless, their loved ones and to their communities. I am so proud of and grateful that the Call Center is a part of Multnomah County's system of care."