CAHOOTS At 30 Pt. I: Crisis Response Teams 'Assume Nothing'

Jul 2, 2019

30 years ago this month, the White Bird Clinic and City of Eugene launched a mobile crisis intervention service. The joke goes that the vans were staffed by counter-culture hippies trained in mental health, who were in “cahoots” with police.  But “CAHOOTS” is the acronym for “Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets.”  And in the first of our two-part series, KLCC’s Brian Bull accompanies a pair of CAHOOTS workers as they respond to calls across the city.  

Crisis worker Kimber Haws (left) and medic Daniel Felts (right) respond to a call in downtown Eugene.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

“Ahright, there’s a suicidal subject,” mutters crisis worker Kimber Haws, who dashes through the rain towards a large van sporting the White Bird Clinic logo. In the distance, sirens wail. 

Haws enters the van and checks in with medic Daniel Felts.

“We’re going to transport a potentially suicidal subject to University District,” he confirms with her.

“Okay,” she says, strapping herself in and shutting the door.

CAHOOTS worker Kimber Haws talks to a reportedly suicidal teen on a rainy night. The girl was taken in the CAHOOTS van to a nearby hospital.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

The CAHOOTS van hits the wet, dark streets and soon enters a parking lot. A sedan sits with its back door open, surrounded by police cars and a fire engine.

Eugene Police Officer Roberto Rios greets Haws and Felts, and walks them toward a teenage girl who sits in the back seat, coiled in a tight ball.  As her parents watch on, Rios explains the situation.

“Ah, she basically got cited for stealing something over at the mall, they were headed home I guess..."

"Uh huh," nods Haws, looking towards the sedan.

"And then she made a statement, like “If you don’t give me my cell phone, I’m gonna kill myself.”  And at one point she grabbed the handle of the car,  to basically jump out of a moving car,” continues Rios.

"Our medics have been talking to her," adds someone with Eugene-Springfield Fire.

"Okay," says Haws, approaching the car.

Note: For privacy, no interactions between CAHOOTS responders and clients were recorded.

Haws kneels next to the girl, and softly talks to her for 20 minutes. The girl then steps into the CAHOOTS van, to be driven to a nearby hospital for evaluation.  Haws says she gave the distraught teen a choice between going in their van and a police car.

“The thing with cops is, if they have to transport you anywhere, it’s in their policy that they have to handcuff you and put you in the back of their vehicle," she explains.

CAHOOTS team Daniel Felts and Kimber Haws.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

"But with us, we can provide more therapeutic space. Maybe offer to put on music for the patient, heat up the back of the van compartment, provide them with a feeling of freedom and choice even when maybe they’re going to the hospital on a police hold.”

Neither Haws nor Felts carry weapons or restraints. Their attire is casual jackets and jeans. The aim of CAHOOTS staff is not to intimidate, but rather counsel and de-escalate situations often fraught with anxiety, tension, or despair. 

And Haws adds, provide an alternative to jail time.

“We’re total hippies," she smiles.  "We don’t like when people get arrested… it’s not like a fun experience for anybody. 

"If we can connect someone to resources, or help them have a more supportive evening, we’re going to do that every time over jail.  And I think Eugene Police are 99.9% on the same page, they don’t want to take people to jail that are dealing with gaps in services or mental health issues.” 

CAHOOTS workers Daniel Felts and Kimber Haws (both left) are called in to assist Eugene and Springfield Police with incidents that deal more with mental health than actual crimes. On this evening, they help talk a woman out of a motel room who was trespassing. They learned later that she was escaping a domestic violence situation at home.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

CAHOOTS and local police share a deep appreciation for each other.  The partnership allows CAHOOTS to address emergency calls where one’s mental well-being is threatened, such as suicide risks, overdoses, or emotional breakdowns.  This allows law enforcement to focus on actual crimes.  Again, Officer Rios.

“I remember patrolling the city of Eugene before we had CAHOOTS.  And we had to do a lot of what they’re doing to assist us now. They’re awesome and we enjoy talking to them, and able to use their resources, because they have a lot of resources that a lot of times, we as police officers don’t have.”

The CAHOOTS team escorts the girl inside a hospital. A counselor walks her into a quiet room where they talk. Satisfied the girl’s being cared for, Haws and Felts move on to the next call…just one out of a dozen they’ll get in their six-hour shift.

A young woman follows Kimber Haws to a PeaceHealth hospital where she'll be evaluated following a possible suicide attempt.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

“Assume nothing” is a motto both White Bird and CAHOOTS staff use in their daily work. Situations can change within seconds.

Haws recalls the one time she got hurt on the job by a man OD’ing on drugs.

“We think a combo of methamphetamine and fentanyl, there was a bad batch of meth going around," says Haws. 

"We tried to like, reassure him, he’s not in trouble or anything. Then he attacked my partner, then I restrained him. 

"I’m a little person, and so he punched me in the face.  And he was trying to reach for a weapon the entire time, so I couldn’t stop restraining him, because he could have gotten the weapon out of his pants.  And that is not going to make for a fun game. You know?”

And while jail time is not the intent of most CAHOOTS responses, Felts says it’s sometimes the only thing that may keep someone alive.

Haws and Felts talk to a homeless woman who'd been called in earlier by a local resident. After learning she'd been barred from several area shelters for disruptive behavior, they were able to transport her to a local church for food and relief from the rain.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

“It’s extremely difficult for somebody to get committed, to have their rights taken away here in Oregon," he tells KLCC.  "So occasionally we will be interfacing with clients routinely, over and over again, who are so profoundly mentally ill, that they’re losing body parts due to frostbite or to infection.  They really can’t take care of their basic needs.

"And sometimes a stint in jail, as awful as it is, can be therapeutic in that it provides food, shelter, medical attention…those really, really, basic needs.”

One early estimate by CAHOOTS said the service saved local police $8 million a year by relieving its case load, though that number’s being re-assessed. 

But many supporters believe that money is being saved…not to mention lives and dignity. 

“If you need help, call CAHOOTS.  These people can do amazing things.  They need’em all over, I think.”

John Garrett is a 66-year-old Vietnam War Marine veteran. Sitting in his wheelchair, he cradles his small dog, Candy. Garrett says while on the streets, his PTSD, flashbacks, and military training put others at risk.

“If somebody was to say somethin’ wrong, I could hurt them.  There’s pressure points all over the body.  I could paralyze you in a split second.  Uncle Sam taught me that.”

CAHOOTS often transported Garrett to the hospital, or helped de-escalate some volatile situations. His praise comes as his time draws near.

Vietnam War Marine veteran John Garrett, his dog, Candy, and CAHOOTS counselor Amy May. Garett is a former client who is dying from COPD.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

“I was supposed to die by December, but I haven’t done it yet.” (BULL: You’re stubborn.)  “I know. That’s what a Marine does, he hangs in there ‘til the end.”

Garrett has Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.  With him in his hospice is Amy May, a CAHOOTS worker who specializes in end-of-life counseling.

“My goal is to help people have the best death that they can possibly have," she tells KLCC. 

"So we’ve talked about what he wants that to look like.  Does he want music playing?  Or things read to him? Who does he want around?”

"Yeah, yeah, I’m going to go on my own terms," beams Garrett. "When I get ready, then I’m goin’.”

When Garrett goes, he’ll be in relative comfort and safety.  He’ll have his bed, his dog, and the company of people pledged to his well-being. 

And while CAHOOTS will be minus one of its most spirited backers, there are signs that the service will see its client base steadily grow in the near future.

Copyright 2019, KLCC.