My name is Cory Elia and I have been reporting on the houselessness crisis throughout the city of Portland for over two years now as a journalist and photographer. Seeing the Portland Street Response model program developing as I have is quite relieving to me.

Maybe because I see it as a step towards a more compassionate treatment of those experiencing crisis and traumas that have rendered them living on the streets or out of vehicles.

It’s also because there has been a well-documented history of interactions between first-responding officers and those experiencing mental crisis ending in a horrifying manner, sometimes even with the death of those having the mental episode. 

The Portland Street Response developed from the advocacy journalism of Street Roots and their journalist Emily Green. She saw an opportunity to use her writing to demonstrate that a better response system could be implemented in Portland.

Street Roots’s Emily Green reports: “Portland Street Response: A Street Roots special report”

My experiences in the field while conducting interviews with houseless individuals has taught me that the interactions between those on the streets, regardless of their mental state, and officers are rarely that of a positive nature. These interactions often seem to be the source of a fair amount of agitation amongst the houseless community.

As previously reported in Street Roots, Portland Street Response is being based on the CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) program in Eugene. However, the Portland Street Response is still in its preemptive modeling stage.      

Currently, volunteers are conducting surveys of the houseless community to figure out how to best implement the program throughout Portland. This inspired me to take part in the opportunity to help conduct this survey. It is unclear at the moment if there will be further surveying in the near future.

Photo credit: Cory Elia

I arrived at Street Roots on the morning of Thursday, July 18 around 9 am to take part in the surveying. The goal of the survey was to gather opinions from the unhoused on how they would like the interactions between themselves and first responders to go. 

When I arrived at their office I was one of the first people there, but quickly the main office was filled with around 30 people also there to take part. This was the second day of groups going out and conducting surveys, the Tuesday before being the first deployment of survey groups.  

After a quick run-through of the strategy for conducting surveys by Street Roots Executive Director, Kaia Sand, and a break down of the survey by Neal Sand of the Yellow Brick Road‘s youth program, the crowd separated into groups of two to three people. The main requirement for the groups was for each to have an individual who had lived experience of houselessness.

Having reported on the situation in the Lents neighborhood and having lived amongst that community myself, I volunteered to lead the group out there which consisted of: Greg Townley, who is co-director of Portland State University‘s Homelessness Research Action and Collaborative, a Street Roots vendor named Jeremy, and myself. We were also joined by KGW reporter Maggie Vespa.

KGW’s Maggie Vespa reports: “When should police be present? Street Roots, other groups survey homeless about the street response” 

Upon arriving at our first destination, SE 92nd Ave and Flavel St, around 10:30 am, it became apparent to me that the area had just been swept by City work crews due to the lack of tents I usually see there. Regardless of that, there was still a good amount of the houseless community in the area for us to survey.

I am well known amongst this crowd, not only for seeking out interviews with members of the community but also by some that are still living on the Springwater Trail. I was houseless myself and lived in a tent on the trail from 2010 through 2013.

This experience on the trail resulted in me being approached by several people before I was even prepared to conduct the survey and getting bombarded by questions like, “where have you been?” and “how are you doing?”

This is typically what happens to me when I show up in this area and it helped me getting several surveys completed in a matter of minutes.

The most disheartening part of this excursion was when my group ventured on to the part of the Springwater Corridor that runs parallel to the 97th Ave MAX stop and saw a Rapid Response work crew conducting a sweep of the camps.

Portland Mercury’s Thacher Schmid reports: “Oversight Questions Arise as Portland Pays to Clean Up Homeless Campsites”

The consensus amongst those living on the Springwater is all of a similar manner and that is that they have had both positive and negative interactions with the police, but that the negative interactions far outnumber the positive ones.    

They expressed that they would appreciate someone else like a crisis worker with a medical or social worker to be the ones to respond to mental health episodes— but they do see a legitimate need for police at certain times.

Between the three other members of the group and myself, we were able to conduct around a dozen interviews in about an hour at this location. Most of the people we talked to were willing to share their input.

The structuring for the Portland Street Response should be finalized for presentation to City Council around November. And if everything moves smoothly, should be up and running by January. 

Conducting the survey and leading the group as I did was an amazing experience that I was able to use my knowledge of where people are camped out to do some good.


Cory Elia is a journalist, photographer, videographer, documentary director & producer, radio personality & podcaster. His journalistic focus is on politics, protest, and poverty.

Contact Cory:

Facebook: Cory Elia
Twitter: @therealcoryelia