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Despite criticisms, Stabbin’ Wagon signs contract with health authority

The Medford nonprofit will provide a new, non-clinical mental health service even after clashing with local officials. The status of other contracts remains uncertain.
Stabbin’ Wagon holds regular outreach events at Medford’s Hawthorne Park, which has seen issues with drug use and camping among unsheltered people. Melissa Jones, the group’s leader, was arrested at the park during sweeps of homeless encampments in 2020. | JAKE THOMAS/THE LUND REPORT
November 21, 2023

This story has been updated with comment from Medford City Councilor Kevin Stine.

The Oregon Health Authority has signed a $1.5 million contract with Stabbin’ Wagon, a nonprofit that has sparked controversy in southern Oregon, to operate a new program offering short-term residential stays to people experiencing mental health crises. 

Health authority spokesperson Tim Heider on Friday confirmed in an emailed statement to The Lund Report that the agency had entered into an agreement with the Medford-based nonprofit that includes additional oversight. The contract comes despite concerns from southern Oregon leaders and treatment providers about funding Stabbin’ Wagon, a nascent nonprofit known for its sharp-elbowed approach to police and others. 

Stabbin’ Wagon will use the money to set up what it’s calling the “Mountain Beaver House” in Jackson County to be one of four state-funded peer respite centers. Each center will offer a voluntary, non-clinical home-like setting where up to six people facing emotional distress or mental health crises can stay for up to two weeks while getting support from “peers,” others who’ve faced similar challenges. 

“The Mountain Beaver House will provide a safe place for people in distress to seek support and turn crisis into an opportunity for growth and healing,” Derek DeForest, a representative of the project, said in a statement.

The respite center will have two outreach staff tasked with building partnerships while educating the community and health providers about how the new center will operate and how to access it, said DeForest. In a follow-up email, DeForest told The Lund Report they were notified the contract was signed Nov. 9. 

Stabbin’ Wagon distributes free syringes, foil for smoking, test strips to check drugs for fentanyl, overdose-reversing naloxone and other supplies intended to reduce harm from using illicit substances. Medford resident Melissa Jones founded the group in 2020 when she began handing out harm-reduction supplies out of a blue Ikea bag. Since then, it’s grown with the help of private donations and funding from Measure 110, Oregon’s drug decriminalization and treatment law. 

The group is also known for its acerbic anti-police social media posts and for Jones’ confrontational style.

In August, Jones was arrested during an altercation with a police officer who was trying to take a runaway youth into custody. She was charged with interfering with a peace officer, harassment, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. A municipal court judge upheld an order excluding her from downtown. 

Emails obtained by The Lund Report in September revealed local officials and treatment providers were shocked that the health authority picked Stabbin’ Wagon for the grant. In one email, Medford City Manager Brian Sjothun contacted the city’s lobbyist, Cindy Robert, calling the grant “a disaster waiting to happen.”

Sommer Wolcott, executive director of treatment provider OnTrack Rogue Valley, said in one email that the grant “could blow up into an interesting media sh*t show.”

But Wolcott took a more conciliatory approach when contacted by The Lund Report Monday. 

“I’m excited that Oregon is implementing peer-run respite programs as a critical part of our state’s larger continuum of care,” she said in an email. She pointed to research funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration “has shown that peer run respite centers can be highly effective in reducing hospital admissions and improving outcomes for vulnerable individuals.” 

Other treatment providers and city leaders, including Medford Mayor Mayor Sparacino, and Police Chief Justin Ivens, did not immediately respond to requests for a comment from The Lund Report. 

Jones previously defended herself in an interview, saying she stands up for herself and marginalized people who have been mistreated by police and ill-served by the medical establishment. In a follow-up email to The Lund Report, Jones reiterated that the Mountain Beaver House is a “very different” project from Stabbin’s Wagon’s harm-reduction program. 

According to the health authority’s statement to The Lund Report, the contract with Stabbin’ Wagon “reflects recent changes OHA has made to peer respite grant agreements to ensure there are clear deliverables and oversight.”

“Now that the contract is signed, OHA will work closely with Stabbin Wagon to support and monitor implementation goals,” reads the statement. “This grantee – as is the case with all OHA grantees – will be subject to regular oversight to ensure they are meeting terms and conditions of their grant agreement, including project deliverables.” 

The contract, obtained by The Lund Report, was signed Nov. 9. It gives the health authority broad discretion to terminate the contract. The 42-page document also includes a budget and states that the health authority will disburse $25,000 initially within 15 days. 

After that, the contract states that the health authority will disburse money to lease or obtain a property as well as start-up costs if they are consistent with the budget. Stabbin’ Wagon will also be required to submit periodic reports on how closely they’re following the peer respite model, as well as demographic data of guests and complaints.

Medford City Councilor Kevin Stine, who has publicly clashed with Jones, told The Lund Report that it’s positive that the health authority placed “a fair amount of sideboards” on the contract and can terminate it if it doesn't work out. 

Stine said he’s not very familiar with the peer respite model, but he said he’d like to see it succeed and that it’s positive that the state is funding more services in the region.

“These things are worth trying,” he said. 

The contract comes over two years after Oregon lawmakers approved $6 million to fund four regional peer respite centers as alternatives to more costly and intensive treatment options. The centers are intended to serve different parts of the state, including the Portland area, southern Oregon, the Oregon coast and central or eastern Oregon.

Nearly a year ago, the health authority notified three organizations, including Stabbin’ Wagon, that they had been selected to receive the $1.5 million grants. In August, the health authority put the grant for Portland-based Black Mental Health Oregon on hold after the Oregon Department of Justice opened an investigation into whether the organization was operating lawfully. 

Department spokesman Roy Kaufmann told The Lund Report in an email that the investigation is ongoing.  

The third group selected for a grant is Project ABLE, an established Salem-based nonprofit organization that intends to open a peer respite center in Lincoln County to serve coastal communities. 

The health authority did not immediately respond to questions regarding the status of Project ABLE’s grant or if an organization had been selected to serve central and eastern Oregon. Project ABLE did not immediately respond to a request for comment.