Ken Houghton, left, and a volunteer walk toward a homeless encampment under the Marion Street Bridge in January to do outreach before police clear it out. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

Salem groups are considering launching a new service that brings mental health aid right to the curb, sidewalk and street.

Driving in a van, social workers would take emergency calls that otherwise go to police or medical service. They arrive to give counseling or medical care, or whisk people to an organization that can help.

It’s not an original idea. It started in Eugene. But the concept has become more popular in Salem as the local homeless population has increasingly dominated the attention of the government, social service agencies and nonprofits.

But first the nonprofits proposing it — The ARCHES Project and United Way of the Mid-Willamette Valley — are trying to figure out if they can afford to add another program.

“I think the concept is good. I just think it’s a matter of if we can get it to pencil out and keep it going,” said Ron Hays, executive director of United Way.

The program in Eugene is CAHOOTS, a crisis team that responds to 9-1-1 calls involving mental health issues. Team members are more medically trained than counselors. They can re-dress wounds or change colonoscopy bags although they function at a tier below paramedics.

CAHOOTS — Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets — launched in 1989. In years since, Roseburg, Portland, Denver, New York and Washington’s capital Olympia have all added similar programs. Last November, The Wall Street Journal spotlighted Eugene’s program.

“I think, collectively, we’re looking to pursue it,” said Ashley Hamilton of The ARCHES Project.

Hamilton said the current vision for Salem’s iteration of CAHOOTS would be to have a van ready to respond to emergencies in the downtown core, rather than police or others steering them to organizations like hers or others.

“I think we should focus on the benefit of having someone that can just be there immediately, in that space, with an unsheltered person downtown,” she said.

Details about Salem’s program are still evolving, but with CAHOOTS the model works like this: a person calls about a low-level emergency, and the call is picked up by the team – a crisis counselor and a medic – who drive to the scene. They can provide on-the-spot care or transport them to a homeless service provider.

“What I’m finding is that the business community, they actually have really big hearts and they want to help, too. But they want a solution,” Hamilton said. “That’s what we heard over and over again. ‘Who can we call? Where can we send them so their needs are met and mine as well?’”

Salem’s downtown is ground zero for that question. Tensions between homeless residents and downtown business owners helped spur a proposed city law to ban sitting or lying on public spaces for most hours of the day.

That law has not yet been discussed publicly or voted on by the Salem City Council. It’s not clear when it will be.

But the law is meant to give police a way to move away people who sleep or sit near businesses during the day. Business owners have said their businesses are suffering as that kind of behavior has grown.

Jerry Moore, Salem police chief, earlier this year said he has “empathy for businesses and people trying to make a living.”

That’s where the mobile crisis team could come in, the nonprofits say. It would differ from other mobile crisis teams already used in the region, such as Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, because it would focus on medical aid.

But the nonprofits say they can’t pay for it themselves.

“We’re still in the stages of talking about it,” said Hays. “When you start a program you want to make sure you can maintain it.”

CAHOOTS’ annual operating budget is about $1.5 million, according to The Register-Guard in Eugene. The city of Eugene in 2018 provided $900,000 of that. That pays for multiple vans that serve the entire city around-the-clock. Those vans now handle nearly one out of every five 9-1-1 calls.

Salem’s mobile crisis team wouldn’t have to entirely imitate Eugene’s, Hamilton said. It could start more modestly, servicing only the downtown core, for example.

“Our thought process is: if we can reduce police contact and (emergency room visits) and intakes into our jail system, that’d be a way to talk about financing the effort long-term,” Hamilton said.

None of those financing talks have taken place yet, said Hamilton and Hays. Officials from the city of Salem also say they have not formally had those discussions.

Hamilton and Hays said they plan to talk with stakeholders this month, all the while tuning their proposal.

Still, she and Hays said if the financials align the program wouldn’t take too long to launch.

“If it works, we’re going to launch and move ahead with it,” said Hays.

Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, troy@salemreporter.com or @TroyWB.

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