As Carly Laney takes a seat in the basement meeting room, the regular morning review at the Community Engagement Program sounds like a Thanksgiving dinner when everyone present is talking about everyone who is absent, and the news is not encouraging.“He is back in the hospital, under restraint.” “She is demonstrating poor impulse control, again.” “He relapsed, lost 10 pounds. Not good.”
Laney, 31, knits as she listens, and at her turn, she mentions a client with schizophrenia she’s been counseling and, “I’ve got to say that the police were friendly and low key and not make it a high stress situation.
The meeting breaks up, and the social workers scatter from the CEP office at 232 N.W. 6th Ave. Laney puts away her yarn and needles and heads to the tiny space she shares with two colleagues. She slings her bag over her shoulder, smiles at the photo on her computer of her young daughter and heads out to spend the day in downtown and Old Town visiting people who live with the triple whammy of mental illness, addiction and homelessness.
Her goal? “Sometimes, I just buy someone a milkshake. Sometimes, I visit someone in his room to make sure he’s OK. Sometimes I’m telling someone that I know he’s not going to kill me. It varies.”
CEP is an agency of the nonprofit Central City Concern with a particular mandate: “We are dealing with the most vulnerable among us,” says Dann Mooty, the CEP supervisor. “We’re kind of the end of the line. And what makes us different is that we don’t wait for you to come and see us. We will go out and find you. If you’re under a bridge, in a doorway, in the hospital, we’ll find you.”
The program’s 15 social workers have a caseload of about 200 clients. CEP’s budget of about $3.2 million comes from the city of Portland, Multnomah County and federal sources – a grant, Medicare/Medicaid payments and subsidies from the Housing and Urban Development Department.
Central City Concerns says a 2006 study found that the psychological support and housing assistance that CEP provides to just one person eases the burden to society — in emergency-room visits, shelter space, police response — by an average of $16,000.
CEP social workers often work with Portland police in managing their clients. Ed Blackburn, Central City’s executive director, said he would not comment on the U.S. Justice Department’s decision this month to review how Portland police use force, particularly with the mentally ill. But Blackburn said his agency’s data for the past two years shows “there’s nothing in those reports about client mistreatment by the police.”
“Police know they have CEP has a resource,” he said. “I see relations with the police at this point as being mutually supportive.”
Laney brings to CEP a ground-level understanding of the problems facing the clientele. Her mother is mentally ill and has been homeless in Portland for years. Laney lived on the streets with her, for a while addicted to heroin. But she went to the Janus Youth Program, got clean, and became an outreach worker to other drug-addicted youth. She moved to CEP 4 1/2 years ago.
“I’ve had a long interest in this subject,” Laney says. “I’ve had a lot of experience on both sides. I know these people. I want to do what I can.”
One day this spring, Laney stopped at the Hotel Alder downtown to check on a client, an immigrant from Mozambique. He greeted her outside: “So nice to see you!”
He led Laney to his room to show off his music posters and his television. He chattered on, his accented English musical but dense.
“You’ve done a lot of work,” she told him. “You’re doing really well.” “Yes!” he replied. “Yes! Thank you!”
Laney said goodbye. Then she hit the street in search of another client.