Ben Brubaker speaking to attendees of CAHOOTS crisis worker training

When I was invited to the first of what is hoped to be many training sessions for those seeking to work as crisis workers for Portland Street Response, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The invitation came from a local outreach group leader and White Bird-trained crisis worker Ree Campbell.

The training session was attended by around three dozen different advocacy and outreach group members affiliated with a wide number of organizations, most of them not representative of their organizations, instead there personally for the training. 

In November, Portland City Council will vote on the Portland Street Response pilot project. Both Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Jo Anne Hardesty support the program, and $500,000 have already been allocated for it. Currently, working groups are deciding details of the pilot project, and Pamplin Media reported in mid-September that there is a disagreement on whether it should be administered by the Portland Fire Bureau or a third-party contractor.

The training for this session was a deeply comprehensive explanation of Eugene, Oregon’s CAHOOTS (Critical Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) model held at Taborspace on 54th Avenue and Belmont Street, late last month. The crisis workers’ role in Portland Street Response, which is being based on CAHOOTS), was the focus of the training.

Oregonian / OregonLive reports: “Homeless Portlanders want mental health, crisis support instead of weapons in first responders”

The main speaker was Ben Brubaker of White Bird Clinic. 

Brubaker gave a history of White Bird Clinic, CAHOOTS, and their histories not only in Eugene— but also with the Oregon Country Fair— providing medical and crisis services. “We started off at the Oregon Country Fair with a couple of band-aids and saying we are the medical clinic and now we are the fifth or sixth largest ER in the state during the weekend of the country fair.” This was answered by cheers from the attendees. 

The CAHOOTS program is staffed by volunteers from the community. The Portland Street Response program is also planned to be run by volunteers, Brubaker said.

He went on to share some of the interactions he has had as a CAHOOTS crisis worker, including a story about a call that appeared to be an individual in a mental health crisis— but it ended up being a diabetic episode.

Brubaker then spoke on several different facets of the role of the crisis worker, but placed a special emphasis on how the interactions with mentally distressed or houseless individuals in a crisis state should be approached.

He explained that White Bird’s philosophy is that everyone deserves respect for their beliefs and personal experiences, and that the crisis worker’s role is to provide help where possible with the minimal amount of intervention needed to de-escalating an situation. 

The use of self in the situation was another topic he touched on, and how and that the crisis worker is the most valuable tool in the situation but to not be disheartened “if it isn’t resolved as hoped”. He elaborated on the use of voice during a situation and that you should “use the other person’s volume like a scaffolding” and that the worker should use a form of speech they feel the person having the issue will be most comfortable with. 

For example, you wouldn’t want to speak super professionally with someone speaking with a lot of street slang. He also explained that a crisis worker should pay attention to their tone and not try to speak over the person. Several other main statements he made about being a crisis worker were “Speak with integrity”, “Don’t make assumptions”, and that a crisis worker who might have a bad interaction in the field should not take it personally.

“Body language can tell a lot about a person”, demonstrating how crossed arms show irritation. He explained that some people might not realize they are showing slightest signs of agitation by making facial expressions, and how that could be picked up on by the clients they are working with. 

According to Brubaker, a crisis worker trainee will need to complete 500 hours of rigorous training in the field and pass multiple progress and proficiency examinations before being officially declared as a CAHOOTS crisis worker.

The crisis worker will also be required to keep track of the interactions they have in a logbook which they must also be trained to properly fill out. Training should be able to completed in around six months to a year.

Brubaker also shared that he is concerned that Portland’s Street Response might not be set up how he and other CAHOOTS workers feel it might be most effective. They envision a series of six or more teams in the different neighborhoods in Portland working together instead of it being one large team answering calls out of a specific headquarters. 

Several advocates in attendance also expressed to Village Portland that they are frustrated with the local street paper Street Roots, Portland State University’s Homeless Research & Action Collaborative, and Hardesty‘s Office because it has so far appeared to those advocates that they are trying to recruit crisis workers from PSU’s social worker program instead of the advocates, outreach workers, and groups that are already doing the work on the ground.

The whole event lasted over two hours and future trainings are already being planned.

Boots on the Ground PDX will be announcing events through their Facebook page here. The events are open to anyone who wants to get the training to be a Portland Street Response volunteer.


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

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