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CAHOOTS At 30 Pt. II: As Services Expand, Other Cities Take Note Of Its Intervention Model

Brian Bull

This Fourth of July marks 30 years since CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) launched in Eugene.  The mobile crisis intervention service has steadily grown through the decades. And not only is it still expanding, other communities are exploring their own version of CAHOOTS.  KLCC’s Brian Bull explains in the second half of our two-part series.

One cold and creepy night in December 2017, Kimberly Robles-Reyes worried she wasn’t alone in her Whiteaker neighborhood home.

“I was watching a movie on my computer in my room with the door shut.  And I heard a noise, like a shuffling sound.  I yelled out, “Hello?  Hello?” Then I turned off my movie and I came out of my room, and the front door was wide open.”

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Kimberly Robles-Reyes outside her Whiteaker-area home. She credits CAHOOTS for helping her emotionally process a home invasion.

A neighbor came to help her explore the house. It wasn’t long before the woman began screaming about an intruder inside a bathroom.  Both called 911.

“And we’re yelling and screaming, she’s freaked out," she recalls.  "And then a man walked out of the room.  His head was shaved, and he had a lot of tattoos on his back, and I recognized some of them as being associated with white supremacists, uhm…yeah, that kinda thing.”

Police arrived, and took the man into custody. Robles-Reyes and her neighbor had a hard time coming down from the incident.

“It was very creepy.  And the officers said, “Would you like CAHOOTS to come out and just help you process?”

"And I said, “Yes, please.’”

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
CAHOOTS workers Kimber Haws and Daniel Felts help a woman walk up the steps to HourGlass, a community counseling center in Eugene.

The CAHOOTS team that came over had Robles-Reyes recount the entire story.  The visit lasted 45 minutes.

“They helped me reframe it, in my mind," she explains to KLCC. 

"So that when I referred back to it, I never really then thought I was in danger.  I don’t think he ever meant to harm me physically.  I wasn’t in physical harm.” 

Robles-Reyes says she’s seen the CAHOOTS van make frequent trips to the Whiteaker area time and time again, but never expected to be a client.

Demand – and attention – are high. Eugene Police data says out of the 96,000 calls made in 2017, CAHOOTS responded to 17 percent of them.

CAHOOTS Operation Coordinator Tim Black says through a city budget increase of $280,000, they’re expanding hours and coverage. This follows national recognition after a Wall Street Journal article profiled CAHOOTS last fall.

“It’s pretty wild," says Black. "We’re pretty grateful for all the attention, it’s validation that the work that we’ve been doing for the last 30 years is really making a difference. 

"Because we took that risk and that partnership 30 years ago, we’ve been able to see that this is a way to respond to mental health, to substance abuse, to housing, in our communities.”

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
A homeless person sits on a street corner, wrapped tight in a blanket and hoodie, on the outskirts of the downtown area.

The story goes that 30 years ago this month, the White Bird Clinic and the City of Eugene formed CAHOOTS to “address the needs of marginalized and alienated populations”, namely the homeless and those suffering from mental illness or addiction. More than 40 people are on staff, with an annual operating budget of nearly $2 million.

Nicole Samhammer, Charge Nurse at the University District Emergency Department at PeaceHealth, says the payoff is immense.  When I met her, a CAHOOTS team had just brought in a suicidal teen for evaluation. The team also picked up two elderly men needing a lift to the Eugene Mission.

“I actually have never worked in an environment without CAHOOTS, and I don’t know how it would be possible to do what we do as successfully as we do without them," laughs Samhammer.

"It’s just unreal how much they help people and how much they can get services to people who I’ve been told routinely, were not able to get to those services, and I just can’t believe a world without them.”

That’s a huge difference from 1989, when skeptics wondered if a bunch of counterculture hippies could effectively engage clients who’d normally be locked up. But law enforcement especially came to appreciate CAHOOTS, which lessened their caseload and let them tackle more crime.

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
CAHOOTS crisis worker Kimber Haws confers with two EPD officers before working with a potentially suicidal subject.

“And it isn’t for lack of trying, I really do believe that the various police agencies ultimately do want to help, but it requires a kind of training that’s on top of everything they already need to do.”

“What I think is most interesting is the ability of that program to potentially reduce the call load of frontline police officers,” says Michael Brown.  He's a Police Inspector in Victoria, BC. He’s been discussing the CAHOOTS model with Eugene Police.

Credit British Columbia Emergency Photography / F

“We are certainly finding in Victoria, and I’m sure this is the case elsewhere, that police officers are just so busy with calls for service, they’re literally run off their feet.”

In New York City, mental health advocates are urging officials to adopt a CAHOOTS-style model. Steve Coe of the group Community Access says in 2017, New York’s 911 center received 170,000 calls from people in crisis, needing trained mental health specialists over police. He points to the 1984 case of Eleanor Bumpurs…a mentally-troubled woman who was past her rent and facing eviction. 

“And she made threats to people, she was going to throw lye at anybody who came to the door," says Coe. 

"Clearly there was an opportunity at many, many points along the way to intervene with her and not wait until the very end and bring in armed officers as a solution.”

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
A CAHOOTS worker walks a homeless woman out of the rain into a church, where she'll get shelter and a meal for the evening.

After a chaotic confrontation, police fatally shot Bumpurs. Coe says there needs to be a recourse for situations like this that don’t involve calling 911...without mental health specialists involved.

“It’s not just only training people, it’s really intercepting people at a much earlier stage who clearly are exhibiting some issues.”

Back in Eugene, Oregon, CAHOOTS Operations Coordinator Tim Black says Portland, Roseburg, Olympia, Washington, and Oakland, California have been in touch with them, too.

Other outreach involves visits by CAHOOTS staff to high schools and middle schools, to educate students on mental health.

Black says the best part of his work is coming across people who are former clients.

“There are folks that I see at the grocery store that are healthy, happy, and housed, that just a couple years ago I was picking up and helping get to the shelters, or taking them to detox or the hospital," he says. 

"It’s invaluable in this line of work to see those individuals actually out in the community doing well again.”

Copyright 2019, KLCC.

Brian Bull is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, and remains a contributor to the KLCC news department. He began working with KLCC in June 2016.   In his 27+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional),  the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from  the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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