Still waiting for someone to take the lead on mental health in Portland

From Steve Duin of The Oregonian, June 24, 2014

I had my come-to-Jason moment in April, right after Jim Francesconi threatened to make mental health a critical issue in his campaign for Multnomah County chair.  Ten minutes with Jason Renaud convinced me Francesconi knew jack about the problem.

The rest of the hour was taken up by how stupidly little I did.

Renaud, on the board of the Mental Health Association of Portland, wasn’t surprised: “The only people intrinsically interested in mental-health issues are sick themselves, and trying to sort it out with God; have family members with mental illness; or view it as a civil-rights issue.

“If you’re not in one of those three categories,” Renaud says, “you distance yourself.”

You have good company in Portland: local political leaders.  The Multnomah County chair, Renaud argues, “is the most important person in the mental-health business.  The way the county commission is set up, the chair has all the power, and they manage the biggest health-care provider in the state, other than the penitentiary.

“What they do, others would follow, if they will only lead.  We’ve never had a county chair who took this seriously.”  Diane LinnJeff CogenTed Wheeler, now serving as state treasurer?  “Ted took this seriously when he was pinned down,” Renaud says, “but that’s how he did everything.”

That cautious detachment is understandable. Few of those ravaged by addiction and mental illness vote; fewer make campaign contributions.  Beyond the length of the line at the Portland Rescue Mission, success is hard to measure.

“It takes a graduate-school education to know how to get around (the system),” Renaud says.  “The people who can who aren’t crazy themselves are rare.”

Renaud is a recovering alcoholic, and painfully blunt.  He has seen mental illness take a tool on his family members.  He produced “Alien Boy,” the documentary on the life and 2006 death of James Chasse, and has written critically of the role of Portland police — “viciousness and thuggery” — in that death.

But in the aftermath of the June 12 death of Nick Davis, shot by Portland cops on the Springwater Corridor when Davis confronted them with a crowbar, Renaud sounds a different tone.

“In a mental-health crisis, if police are involved, a lot of other opportunities to intervene have gone by,” Renaud says.  “(Davis) had been in crisis for years, and left to his own devices.  He didn’t get well.  He didn’t become a good citizen.  Where’s the outreach worker walking up and down the Springwater Corridor, asking, ‘How can we get you out of this situation?’ That may start with some dry socks.”

Renaud credits the cops with some soul-searching in the wake of James Chasse and the Department of Justice inquiry: “(Police Chief) Mike Reese is a big part of that.”

And he believes Deborah Kafoury, the new Multnomah County chair, has the instincts and background to focus on the crisis, once she properly frames the issue.

“Her agenda is homelessness,” Renaud says, “which is a euphemism for untreated addiction and untreated mental illness by developers who want to line their pockets.”

Too many homeless advocates, he argues, would rather talk about poverty and social justice than mental illness: “Their solution is to build apartments, which just gets the problem off the streets.  That’s what the Chamber of Commerce wants, but at this point in the 21st century, that’s not sufficient.”

What is sufficient? A long-overdue audit of mental health and addiction services. An agency geared to accommodate the irrational, inconvenient needs of the patients, not the limited attention span (9 a.m – 5 p.m., weekdays only) of the staff.

A fresh focus on how public-health services are delivered at the jail: “Almost everyone who is arrested is drunk, loaded or mentally ill,” Renaud says.  And as long as they’re in custody …

A system run by professional administrators rather than the psychologists and social workers who lack business experience.  A permanently unlocked door at Hooper Detox. The occasional outreach along the Springwater Corridor and the other urban campsites.

And a county chair who refuses to blink: “If the chair says we need to do better, that we can’t put this off generation after generation, it may get repaired.”