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Long-delayed Oregon program for people in mental distress nears reality

As soon as this summer, people facing a crisis could get support from others in home-style settings around the state
Mental health services are increasingly turning to peer mentors — people who have faced mental health challenges themselves. Oregon is moving closer to opening four respite centers staff by peer mentors who will offer a reprieve to people facing a crisis. | SHUTTERSTOCK
March 19, 2024

After years of delay, Oregon health officials have selected a full slate of nonprofits to operate a statewide program for people experiencing intermediate psychiatric distress. 

Oregon lawmakers in 2021 approved $6 million to set up four peer respite centers around the state, residential settings where people facing a mental health crisis can stay for up to two weeks. 

But the Oregon Health Authority took longer than expected to launch the program, had trouble finding qualified nonprofits for one region, delayed its contract to another, and canceled a contract it had issued to a group that the Oregon Department of Justice had found ineligible to receive state funding.

Operated by nonprofits, the centers will be staffed by peer mentors — people who have faced mental health challenges themselves —and serve as many as six people at a time

The centers were intended to fill a gap in Oregon’s underdeveloped behavioral health system, and some research indicates they can be effective in keeping people out of hospitals

Kevin Fitts, a longtime behavioral health activist who lobbied lawmakers for the program, told The Lund Report that hospitals can be traumatizing. With Oregon facing a well-publicized shortage of psychiatric beds, he said that peer respite centers can treat someone experiencing psychosis before they require more intensive care. He said he was glad the health authority had moved past contracting difficulties. 

“Peer respite helps save people’s lives,” said Fitts, who is also a volunteer member of The Lund Report’s Community Advisory Board. “The system hasn’t recognized there is a gray area between the home and psychiatric hospitals.” 

The health authority is awarding $1.5 million to nonprofits to run centers in the Portland area, southern Oregon, the Oregon coast and central or eastern Oregon. 

Earlier, the health authority selected Salem-based Project ABLE to set up a center to serve coastal communities, and Medford-based Stabbin’ Wagon, which is developing the Mountain Beaver House respite for southern Oregon.  

More recently, the health authority selected FolkTime, which has operated mental health programs in the Portland area for decades, as well as a Chiloquin-based group with a focus on tribal communities called the Stronghold: A Culturally Responsive Peer Support Program. 

“The two things that exacerbate our mental health are the feeling of being alone, that we’re the only person in the world that is feeling this way. And the feeling of rejection,”

The groups are in various stages of hiring and training staff, securing property and completing other tasks to set up the regional centers. At least three of them expect to start welcoming guests this year.

Peter Starkey, executive director for Portland—based FolkTime, has run peer respite centers in New Hampshire. He said the approach stands out from other programs because people staying in the centers have time to build relationships and feel a sense of community. 

“The two things that exacerbate our mental health are the feeling of being alone, that we’re the only person in the world that is feeling this way,” he said. “And the feeling of rejection.”

Timeline for FolkTime

Last year the state selected nonprofits to operate in three of four regions envisioned for the program, including Project ABLE to open a center on the Oregon coast and has not invoiced the health authority. Project ABLE did not respond to emails from The Lund Report seeking comment. 

However, the health authority in August paused a $1.5 million contract with Black Mental Health Oregon after the Oregon Department of Justice began investigating the group for not making required financial disclosures. 

In December, a health authority official notified Taunya Golden-David, the group’s leader, that the agency was canceling the contract because the DOJ investigation is continuing, writing in a letter that, “It is not fair to the community to hold onto these dollars when they could be put to use for their intended purpose.” 

Black Mental Health Oregon did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Lund Report. 

FolkTime had applied for the program last year. After Black Mental Health Authority lost the contract, the health authority reached out to see if FolkTime was still interested, Starkey told The Lund Report.

Those turning to a peer respite center could include a range of situations, Starkey said. They could include someone going through a divorce or was in a bad car accident and is having difficulty driving to work. There are also those thinking about self-harm who don’t feel comfortable with psychiatric hospitalization. 

Once accepted, they’ll be greeted by peer mentors or support workers. Mental health programs nationally are increasingly hiring people who’ve experienced a psychiatric disorder to provide support for those receiving services, according to Mental Health America. At the respite, the focus turns to negotiating what clients want to get out of their stay, giving them an important sense of control over their situation, said Starkey. 

He’s seen some people that just need a quiet place to process feelings and only emerge from their room for meals, he said.

“And they’re like, ‘I had the most amazing time. This is what I wanted and nobody was pressuring me or making me do anything,’” Starkey said. 

A different guest might need to talk with staff until they fall asleep on the couch, or listen to loud music at late hours. 

Starkey said the staff’s role is to check in on the guest who wanted to be alone and ask another guest to use headphones or only play music at certain hours. 

The approach allows guests to gain the satisfaction of helping each other as well as staff. 

Starkey said FolkTime hopes to purchase a property and open its peer respite center at the end of summer. 

It will have two staff members at the center at all times in case there’s a fire or a guest needs to be driven to the hospital, he said. He said the group has had to cope with elevated costs for both housing and labor. 

“In 2019, in the Portland area, you could probably get away with paying someone like $15 to $18 an hour for peer support,” he said. “There are a lot of peer support jobs that are now starting at $25.”

‘There’s not one type of healing’

The Stronghold also intends to open its peer respite center over the summer and has made progress hiring staff and buying a property in northern Klamath County.  The cabin the group intends to use for the respite is in a part of the county that sees significant snow, and the nonprofit acquired a plow and a snowblower to keep it accessible, Sarah Miller, a program manager for the Stronghold, told The Lund Report 

Developed in 2019, the Stronghold offers culturally specific support programs and works with the Great Spirit Native American Fellowship United Methodist Church on a transitional housing program. The organization is operated by people who have had experiences with mental health or substance use challenges, and are also enrolled in or have ties to a federally recognized tribe. 


“Because there’s not one type of healing at all. There are many ways,”

Miller said that the center will provide a break for people with a “mental health concern” that may reach a crisis level, but also “may not be that extreme.”

People trying to center themselves after fleeing an unsafe situation, grieving the death of a friend or struggling with stresses from rural Oregon’s lack of economic opportunities and health care could all find the respite center helpful, she said. 

The Stronghold’s center will have a focus on Native communities, weaving “traditional healing models” with more conventional methods such as telehealth, Miller said. 

“Because there’s not one type of healing at all,” she said. “There are many ways.”

Traditional models could include ceremonies and a sweat lodge. There will also be rooms for meditation and smudging— a cleansing practice that involves burning sage or other sacred plants. Guests will be able to do beadwork and crafts. 

Hawthorne Park in Medford. 

Medford contract

The health authority in November also signed a peer respite contract with Stabbin’ Wagon, a Medford-based nonprofit known for distributing syringes and other supplies intended to reduce the harm from drug use. 

The final contract comes roughly a year after the health authority first selected Stabbin’ Wagon to run the center. The group, led by Melissa Jones, is known for its accepting approach toward drug use and clashes with city leaders and treatment providers who raised alarm over the contract

After the backlash, the health authority added additional oversight to Stabbin’ Wagon’s contract for the peer respite center called the “Mountain Beaver House.” So far, the Mountain Beaver House has invoiced the health authority for $431,380. 

Ira Clarke, the project’s outreach coordinator, told The Lund Report in an email that the Mountain Beaver House is hiring staff and scheduled training for the rest of the year. It has also been working through planning and zoning processes to acquire a house that it plans to open this year. 

You can reach Jake Thomas at [email protected] or via @jakethomas2009.