City News

Salem leaders want civilians, not police, to respond to personal crises. They just have to find a way to pay for it

Brenton Gicker, left, prepares to pull CAHOOTS van toward a 911 call at Eugene Public Library on Nov. 10, 2019. SOURCE: (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

Salem is a step closer to joining the growing number of communities across the country dealing with mental health emergencies with specially trained workers instead of police.

Salem City Councilor Vanessa Nordyke lead the way, winning support of the Salem City Council for a directive that city staff develop a proposal for a mobile response unit. She said the concept is supported by those in the community ranging from the Salem Area Lodging Association to mental health advocates.

Nordyke said she’s talked with business owners who have people experiencing homelessness milling outside their store, but they don’t want to call police for fear of worsening the situation.

“A lot of the owners I talked to said: ‘Look, we just want someone to talk to them. I don’t want someone to get arrested necessarily,’” she said.

Instead of choosing between calling police or handling a situation themselves, Nordyke said a mobile response unit presents a third option to business owners.

The council will get a report identifying which community partners could contribute money to such a program, modeled after Eugene-based CAHOOTS. Councilors Matt Ausec and Brad Nanke were absent. Councilor Cara Kaser resigned last week after moving out of Salem.

Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets is paid in part through the Eugene Police Department’s budget to the tune of just over $1 million a year.

Tim Black, operations manager for CAHOOTS, told the council Monday that teams resolve at the scene more than two-thirds of the mental health calls they are dispatched to.

Last year, Salem Reporter spent a day with one the units in Eugene as city leaders contemplated a similar program locally.

Black said CAHOOTS saves Eugene $8.5 million by diverting people away from using ambulances or the emergency room.

“There’s an inherently larger pool we’re saving from diverting folks from the jail we just haven’t been able to quantify that yet,” Black said.

Last year, the city of Salem calculated that it spends more than $5 million per year responding to homelessness issues with costs from breaking up illegal camps to picking up trash.

While Councilors Jim Lewis and Chris Hoy agreed it would be a positive to have an agency other than the police department respond to mental health crisis calls, they worried who would pay for it.

Nordyke said she first brought up the idea during a work session a year ago.

She said a pilot program in Salem could start by focusing on the downtown core and build from there if successful.

“The reaction I get from people has been really, really powerful,” Nordkye said. “It emotionally resonates with people because we have such a lack of mental health services.”

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Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] or @daisysaphara.