Hold the phone: Why is Multnomah County funding two crisis lines?

By Dirk VanderHart, The Portland Mercury, Sept. 4, 2013Suicide hotline worker

When local nonprofit Lines for Life persuaded Portland City Council a year ago to dole out $150,000 for expanded suicide hotline services, some in the mental-health community had concerns.

Wouldn’t the organization increasingly be in competition with Multnomah County’s existing crisis call center? Why do we need two publicly funded suicide hotlines, anyway?

“This sounds like a competitive, confusing scenario,” Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland told the Mercury at the time.

This year, it was the county’s turn to pony up.

In a move that privately exasperated some county employees, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners on Thursday, August 29, gave Lines for Life $300,000 to help shore up the nonprofit’s rocky finances.

“The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners is not a foundation and we don’t advertise ourselves that way,” Commissioner Judy Shiprack said before the unanimous vote. “This action we’re about to take is an extraordinary action.”

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Suicide remains a perennial concern in Portland. A spike in jumps from the city’s notorious Vista Bridge has led to volunteers patrolling the span and prompted City Commissioner Steve Novick to put up a temporary barrier while officials scout out funding for something permanent.

Amid all of that attention, the 20-year-old Lines for Life (formerly known as Oregon Partnership) has grown destitute, employees and board members say. Federal grant money, long the linchpin of the organization’s funding, has dried up in recent years. As a result, Lines for Life has laid off and furloughed employees, and curtailed outreach programs.

But calls to the group’s stable of hotlines—it has services for distressed teens, suicidal individuals, and people with substance abuse issues, along with a three-year-old line for military veterans—have stayed at roughly 35,000, with the bulk of callers contemplating suicide. Nearly a third of the calls are from Multnomah County, says Tom Parker, development and communications director at Lines for Life.

While the organization works to find sustainable funding, it’s not unreasonable, he says, to make the request for local public money.

“There’s no reduction in need—that’s really the bottom line here,” Parker says. “We’ve been providing these services for years. We just haven’t asked Multnomah County to chip in.”

Lines for Life board member Lon Getlin told commissioners he’s “extremely confident” the organization will find reliable funding. “But I can also tell you that without the funds that you all are considering, we immediately would make some fundamental, draconian cuts in services.”

Multnomah County has its own budgetary demands. The county’s crisis line saw more than 63,500 calls in fiscal 2012. While they haven’t had to reduce services, the crisis intervention programs coincidentally saw nearly $300,000 less in general fund money from the county this year.

This time around, those cuts were largely back-filled by state funding. But such funding might dry up as Oregon implements the federal Affordable Care Act, warns Joanne Fuller, Multnomah County’s chief operating officer.

So would Multnomah County’s $300,000 have been better spent on its own services?

“That’s a good question,” says Commissioner Deborah Kafoury who, like most of her colleagues, voiced concerns about the award before voting to approve it nonetheless. “I wanted to make sure to get on record that this is a one-time-only thing.

“We need to look internally at our own crisis line as well,” she says.

County Chair Jeff Cogen says he’d like to explore the relationship to county crisis services and some of the more unique offerings at Lines for Life.

“The question of ‘do we need these various hotlines?’ is a reasonable one to ask,” Cogen says. “My understanding, doing a survey of this situation, is at this point people thought this was an important service to save.”

Meanwhile Renaud, the mental health advocate, had a more-direct take on the disbursement.

“What the hell?” he says. “The county already has a crisis line. It is a competing service.”