Old Town InReach Team Transforms Service to Homeless

The Old Town InReach Program (OTIP), launched in 2022 with a small team of Peer Support Specialists (PSSs), is a partnership of nonprofit service providers in Portland helping to end homelessness. The innovative program pairs people experiencing homelessness with specialists who have personally overcome homelessness, addiction, and mental illness. 

OTIP team members can:

  • Build trust with people who are disconnected from society and pushed to the margins.
  • Connect people to life-saving services like detox, shelter, clothing, and food.
  • Help people acquire personal IDs, birth certificates, and referrals to remove barriers.
  • Make it safer and easier for social services organizations to serve by defusing crises. 
  • Provide a compassionate ear and guidance on the often difficult path to stable and healthy housing.

OTIP Peer Support Specialists are employed by the Mental Health and Addiction Association of Oregon (MHAAO) with funding from Multnomah County.

Partnering Organizations

OTIP team members move between nonprofit organizations serving similar clients.

Blanchet House

Rose Haven

William Temple House

Lift UP PDX 

Mental Health & Addiction Association of Oregon (MHAAO)

William Temple House
Peer Support Specialist Jennifer Coon talks to homeless man outside Blanchet House

Peer Support Specialists

A peer support specialist (PSS) is a person with “lived experience” who has been trained to support others who struggle with mental health, trauma, substance use, or housing insecurity. Their personal experiences give them expertise that professional training cannot duplicate. Not only do specialists contribute to the lives of others, but they also improve their own recovery and well-being in the process. PSS certification and training requirements vary by state.

“I have time to actually help people navigate through the systems,” Brian Cooper, OTIP PSS says. “There are certain things that we can do for people like getting them into shelter or detox if that’s something they want. We can help them get IDs or birth certificates to remove barriers that are keeping them houseless.”

OTIP History

For people experiencing homelessness due in part to untreated mental health issues, substance addiction, or disabilities, navigating resource systems on your own is next to impossible.

The first obstacle for many people is accessing a working phone. Then you can find yourself up against dead-end leads, full voicemail boxes and unanswered calls to service providers, requests for faxed paperwork, requirements, and fees leading many people to give up. The OTIP Portland aims to provide individualized support to help people more easily access life-saving resources on their journey to suitable housing.

The Old Town In-Reach Program (OTIP) was conceived by Scott Kerman, the Executive Director of Blanchet House. A nonprofit cafe and shelter serving people challenged by poverty, food insecurity, physical and mental disabilities, addiction, and homelessness.

For 70 years, the organization has offered free hot meals, clothing, and transitional shelter utilizing a small staff. A drastic increase in methamphetamine use, physical disabilities, chronic illness, and mental health disorders amongst the population it serves caused disruptions of aid delivery.

More frequent outbursts and dangerous behaviors inside and outside caused difficulty in safely serving food to hundreds of diners a day. On some days Blanchet House was forced to stop service altogether because of violence or someone experiencing psychosis. Peer organizations in the community offering aid were experiencing similar challenges.

Partners Experiencing Similar Challenges

Kerman learned from partners that one innovative way to better serve people is to employ Peer Support Specialists. He reached out to MHAAO for support in this new area.

Jennifer Coon, a peer support specialist (PSS) employed by MHAAO was the first specialist to be stationed at Blanchet House during meal services. It was immediately clear that more PSSs were needed to help build relationships with clients, de-escalate crises, and connect people to services.

Kerman started working on this program in 2020, and in 2021, Multnomah County voted to give more than $1 million to help fund OTIP. Kerman says that two things became apparent over time: The peer support specialists were experts at building trust and defusing crises that might otherwise disrupt services at Blanchet House.

“That trusting relationship is so important,” he says. “We’re serving people who are used to being disappointed, ignored, or maybe even lied to, and so they’re reticent to ask for help because it doesn’t always result in anything good. As they come to trust their peers, they become more confident about asking for help, and that’s when we can really see some progress with maybe helping people get to a better place.”

Questions about the OTIP team or program? Contact Kathy Finkle at info@blanchethouse.org or call 503-241-4340.

OTIP in the News

New program helps Portlanders with addiction, mental health crises

Peer Support and Wellness Specialist Training Programs in Oregon

To become a Peer Support Specialist (PSS) or Peer Wellness Specialist (PWS) in Oregon an individual must complete the 50 to 80-hour training hosted by a few different organizations. After successfully completing the training you are eligible to receive a certificate from the Oregon Health Authority under the Traditional Health Worker (THW). Find the OHA’s Traditional Health Worker FAQ here.

MHAAO (Mental Health & Addiction Association of Oregon)

NAMI (National Alliance of Mental Illness)

COCC (Central Oregon Community College)

Project Able

RCC (Rogue Community College)

Cascadia Health Care