A leg up and a helping hand

I found myself on a Yellow Line MAX train, trying to calm the distressed woman beside me. Normally, if I saw a person who appeared to be homeless on the MAX, rocking back and forth and talking to themselves, I’d quietly mind my own business. But on this day, I was involved.

It was getting dark and starting to rain. Where would she end up? What happened to people like her, people disoriented and frightened and homeless and vulnerable? My interaction with this woman couldn’t be the first (or last) time a student has encountered a non-student experiencing a crisis.

When I’d approached the MAX station after my class, my professor was buying a ticket for the woman who stood behind him, shifting her weight from foot to foot. Her lip and eyebrow were cut and bleeding, her eyes bloodshot and looking in all directions. She was wringing her hands and whimpering. Someone had beaten her up; she was scared, homeless, and didn’t know where to go.

As the three of us waited for the train, her eyes were wide and searching. She answered our questions with disjointed phrases or not at all.

Later, as I sat with her on the MAX, her whimpers grew louder. Her agitation continued to mount as the train filled, and after a few stops she jumped up and fled.

I hesitated, unsure of what to do as the doors closed. At the next stop, I got off the MAX and walked quickly back to where I’d last seen her through the window of the train. I circled for blocks in either direction. I couldn’t find her. She was gone; but her face stayed with me, along with the wish that I’d been able to help her.

I called the Portland Rescue Mission. I wanted to figure out what, if anything, could be done for people in crisis when these circumstances repeat themselves, for myself or any other student.

“If you’re dealing with someone who’s not there mentally, there’s not a ton you can really do,” said a voice over the phone.

The volunteer who answered my phone call said the Rescue Mission, located on the west side of the Burnside Bridge, is a good place to take people for a few nights of safety, where they can “get their head back on.”

If you’re unsure of how to approach someone who is visibly unstable, he said, it’s always a good idea to just ask them if you can talk to them or call anyone for them.

“Always let them feel like they’re in control of the situation,” he said. But he reiterated: if someone isn’t cognizant, sometimes you just can’t help them.

Kathy Pape is Central City Concern’s senior director of public affairs, a Portland nonprofit assisting those affected by homelessness, poverty, and addiction. When I explained my query to her, she said the best option is the non-emergency police.

“They have a mental health response team. They’re a great resource and they know how to deal with people,” Pape said.

The CCC has a pickup service for people who are disoriented due to drugs or alcohol—those “aggressively drunk or passed out,” Pape said. It’s called the CHIERS van. It roves the city and is staffed by EMTs trained to deal with substance abusers and the mentally ill.

However, Pape told me they only pick up intoxicated people. In terms of the experience I had, they may not have been able to help the woman—clearly in distress but not from drugs or alcohol.

Finally, I went to the Women’s Resource Center. A staffer there reiterated advice I’d already heard. Ask the individual if they want to talk, or if you can call anyone for them. This staffer was wary of calling the police; you never know, she said, who will be triggered by people in uniform, and by virtue of their presence, police introduce the potential of lethal force into any situation. Even PSU Campus Dispatch officers responding to an emergency call may be armed, she said.

My quest for answers didn’t yield a magic-bullet solution. There was no conclusive course of action for what to do for those in crisis. But I’ve learned that if you feel the urge to help, just be a human being and treat the distressed as such. Ask the person if you can talk to them. Ask if they can articulate what they need. And if you don’t know what to do for them, here are some numbers to call:

CHIERS van: 503-238-8132
Portland Rescue Mission, Burnside: 503-906-7690
Campus Public Safety Office, non-emergency: 503-725-4407
Non-emergency police: 503-823-3333