July 19, 2021

Mental Health Unit officers John McVay and Joe Wenhold, alongside College to County intern Zola Neal, set up a stand and lay out socks, bottles of water and box lunches

It’s nearing lunchtime at Northwest Everett Street and Third Avenue in Portland’s Old Town. A mobile outreach van driven by the Multnomah County Department of Community Justice’s Mental Health Unit pulls into a convenient parking spot just off Third.

Mental Health Unit officers John McVay and Joe Wenhold, alongside College to County intern Zola Neal, set up a stand and lay out socks, bottles of water and box lunches — picked up earlier from the County’s Juvenile Services Division’s Courtyard Café and Catering Service. 

The 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 — even the opioid reversal drug, Narcan. It includes an awning with Wi-Fi and workstations. It offers heating, storage for goods and two charging stations capable of rapidly charging several community members’ mobile devices at a time. 

The team provides meals, information and connection to services to passersby — many of whom already have connections to County services themselves. Some may receive food assistance or are looking to apply for them, along with housing and/or employment needs. Others may be on supervision with the Mental Health Unit. At times, the team is joined by a clinician from Cascadia Behavioral Health.

The outreach is a lifeline for community members in need — an attempt to meet people where they’re at and change the way services are delivered.  

“It used to be about coming to the office,” and having someone “report-in once a month or once a week,” said McVay, community justice manager for the Mental Health Unit. “We talk and maybe work on skill training to reduce thinking and behaviors leading to recidivism and we’re still doing that.” 

“But this is about trying to change the way we do what we do to engage more people. It’s about meeting folks where they’re at while also changing services to not only help folks exit the justice system, but to help them from ever entering it in the first place,” McVay said. 

Mental Health Unit officers John McVay and Joe Wenhold pick up meals prepared by the County’s Juvenile Services Division’s Courtyard Café and Catering Service.

The dynamic and multifaceted role of parole and probation professionals is being recognized this week as part of Pretrial, Probation and Parole Supervision Week. The week recognizes not only the professionals of its namesake but also juvenile court counselors, juvenile custody services specialists, corrections counselors, employment coordinators, victims advocates, community health specialists, administrative staff, interns and countless others who diligently work on some of the most pressing matters facing society today.  

Members of the County’s mobile Mental Health Unit are part of that response. The team provides “drop in” services to people being served by the unit and others in the community. After 18+ months of some of the most devastating crises in recent memory, the service is sorely needed. COVID-19 presented many challenges and barriers to providing services. 

“Last summer, we were looking at our Mental Health Unit data and people on supervision who were seemingly missing,” McVay said. “Sixty percent of clients were experiencing homelessness or not in residences — a significant surge since 2017 when numbers were at around 25 percent. We needed to reach people where they were.”

“The contact by phone or Zoom was OK for some, but it wasn’t enough nor was it as accessible for many people,” said McVay. “That in-person contact is critical. It’s a major piece of what we do.”

The Department of Community Justice’s Mental Health Unit works with community treatment providers, mentors and mental health advocates and most community groups that work with the population. They serve a critical role in community safety but also work to improve access to services for people with severe mental illness who are at high risk of criminal legal system involvement. The team’s priority — through the mobile unit — is providing outreach and engaging community members. 

When basic needs can be addressed — for any individual — it can lead to greater engagement, said McVay. “But it also provides greater ability to address other stabilizing factors, such as medication and treatment, in addition to beginning to address criminogenic needs.” 

The work addresses both the fallout from COVID-19 and a surge in community violence and is being bolstered by American Rescue Plan funds that help support a variety of expenses — including food provided by the County’s Juvenile Nutritional Services. 

The mobile unit has helped to reduce the number of warrants by connecting with individuals in the community and re-engaging people in their supervision, said McVay. The team works rotations — Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, providing services to clients and those with intersections with Multnomah County. In the future, community health specialists may join the team. 

Joe Wenhold joined the Mental Health Unit after serving as a corrections technician. Before that, he worked for New Avenues for Youth, a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving youths experiencing homelessness.

“I have seen homeless youth on my caseload,” said Wenhold. “It is a form of building a rapport and trying to get people into service and not on the street.” 

“You’re a case manager, but you also have a badge, so having a really open conversation is difficult,” said Wenhold. “There are many things that we do that are part of the traditional roles thought of for parole and probation officers, but we’re also working to meet needs and understand risks in where people are coming from.” 

“And to be responsive to what needs to happen.”

The role of parole and probation, pretrial professionals and all the roles in between are often in the background. They are often silent partners, yet spend significant time with people in the community while collaborating with community partners. 

“This work is really part of the broader efforts to engage with the community, where they are at and try to work towards the idea that there’s no wrong door,” said McVay. 

“If I need services, I don’t have to know how to navigate the system — I just need to find the building or the van or any County facility and gain access to it. 

This is one of those first steps.”

The team provides meals, information and connection to services to passersby — many of whom already have connections to County services themselves

Mental Health Unit officers John McVay and Joe Wenhold.

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