Straight Talk: Behavioral health and the homeless crisis

According to Oregon Recovers, the state ranks 47th in the nation when it comes to accessing addiction treatment.

Portland, OR. On his brother Tim’s 68th birthday, Portland Commissioner Dan Ryan recalled how Tim struggled with mental health addiction and substance abuse. Tim died on the streets six years ago.

Ryan is leading efforts to find sites to build six outdoor homeless shelters recognized by the city, called “Safe Rest Villages.” He is convinced that they would have made a difference in his brother’s life.

RELATED: New Safe Rest Village West Side Location Announced

“Being in a village setting with other people with whom he can form a community, having access to the behavioral and mental health professionals coming into the village would have given him a lot of hope and our family would have been really supportive of that,” Ryan said.

Behavioral health support services are an essential part of Safe Rest Villages

A 24/7 empathetic rally around behavioral health services is an essential part of Ryan’s vision of safe rest villages. Behavioral health experts say supportive services make a successful transition to permanent housing more likely. However, providing these services can be difficult with understaffed and insufficient treatment centers.

Commissioner Ryan joined Oregon Recovers founder and director Mike Marshall, and Oregon State Representative Tawna Sanchez (D- District 43) for this week’s episode of “Straight Talk” to discuss behavioral health and homelessness in Oregon.

RELATED: Safe rest villages postponed to 2022

‘Oregon needs a recovery caesar’

Marshall 13 years in recovery from alcohol and methamphetamine. He is also the co-founder and director of the statewide coalition, Oregon Rivers. According to “Oregon Recovers,” the state ranks 47th in the nation when it comes to accessing addiction treatment.

At the same time, some of the existing treatment centers, such as the alert station that had been operated by the Central City Concern (CCC) for 30 years, have been closed. The station in northeast Portland provided an alternative place for people to wake up rather than take them to prison. CCC told KGW that it was a difficult decision to close earlier this year, but that employees were increasingly seeing people posing a risk of violence to themselves and others, so they had safety concerns.

RELATED: Central City Concern Closes Sober Portland Station

Marshall believes the state needs bolder leadership when it comes to coordinating addiction and recovery services to provide more treatment options.

“There is no good dialogue going on that I know of to come up with an evidence-based response to that. It is a reflection… that we don’t have a coordinated effort at the state level and we don’t have someone in charge. Governor Brown needs to appoint a recovery czar. And the next governor needs to appoint a recovery czar.”

Vacations are often the time when people look for help. For those who are looking for recovery services or want to talk with a peer mentor, they should visit

Behavioral health workforce shortage

Another challenge is hiring and retaining qualified behavioral health care workers. Commissioner Ryan said the problem has worsened during the pandemic.

“We have a workforce challenge,” he said. “We don’t motivate the people who do this work enough, a lot of them are on the verge of becoming homeless,” Ryan said.

The city and county increased investments in hiring during the fall budget adjustment, but Ryan said more needs to be done to recruit behavioral employees, including those they look forward to hiring.

RELATED: Oregon Nurses Association calls nurse shortage ‘historic and catastrophic’

“I also think we have to be creative and innovative in who is doing the work. We know that people who have lived through and who are in recovery offer some of the best skill sets. You can’t get enough of MSW [Masters of Social Work] “To fill in the blank,” Ryan said.

Oregon makers passed a groundbreaking $500 million behavioral health package in the last legislative session. One of those bills includes $80 million to create incentive programs to increase the capacity and diversity of Oregon’s behavioral health workforce. Representative Tawna Sanchez is the chair of the Behavioral Health Committee.

She said it takes times for this money to work through the system and they are not seeing this funding result in an expanded workforce yet. However, she said, lawmakers are working on other ways to motivate the existing workforce to stay and not go to higher-paying jobs.

“It’s a longer process,” she said. “It takes time to get these things moving, unfortunately. We’re trying.”

I agreed with Mike Marshall that something had to be done to make these critical but stressful jobs more attractive.

“We don’t pay people enough to do these really stressful jobs, and these are the people who have solid waste workers and some without them. Some of those peer support people we don’t pay enough to really live,” she said.

Commissioner Ryan Responds to People for Portland Complaints

Commissioner Ryan also responded to a complaint by the nonprofit People for Portland that city and county leaders aren’t doing enough quickly to get homeless people off the streets. The group says elected officials are not doing enough to address community safety.

Ryan said the city is “on it.” He noted efforts to open safe rest villages and to fund body-worn cameras for the Portland Police.

RELATED: City leaders flooded with emails from People for Portland

“Obviously there was a voice to be heard and they tuned in. I just hope they play a pivotal role soon,” he said.

“Straight Talk” airs Friday at 7 pm, Saturday at 6:30 pm, and Sunday at 9:30 pm
“Straight Talk” is also available as a podcast.

He watches: The people of Portland are trying to hold elected officials accountable

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