In 2021, the Oregon legislature designated six million dollars to establish and operate four peer respites across the state. Peer respites are an innovative and cost effective alternative to psychiatric hospitalization, and these resources are badly needed across the country. In late 2022, the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) issued a public request for grant proposals, and our organization was chosen to create and operate a peer respite in Southern Oregon.
In the year since the Oregon Health Authority issued its Intent to Award notice, Oregon’s peer respite’s have come under attack from many sides. Our respite, the Mountain Beaver House, has been a main focus of these attacks, along with the Portland-based grant awardees Black Mental Health Oregon. Sera Davidow did a fantastic job laying out the crux of these controversies in another recent blog post.
As we’ll show later on in this article through a series of released emails between the city of Medford and the Medford Police Department, these attacks include a coordinated effort of police and city officials to prevent our respite from receiving funding for a variety of political reasons, including the outlandish claim that our services would cause “destruction.”
We wanted to take a minute to introduce ourselves, our background, and hopes for this peer respite. We are a group of psychiatric survivors with years of experience providing peer support as well as organizing for social justice causes including prison abolition and racial justice. When we say that we are abolitionists, we mean that we are dedicated to the liberation of mad and incarcerated people everywhere, and accomplishing this will require a radical transformation in the world. We want to see an end to prisons and psych wards, and we also want to dream up a positive world full of alternative ways that people can grow, learn and heal in community—without the threats of violence that are so often found in said prisons and psych wards.
The Oregon Health Authority gave us, a group of upfront and outspoken prison abolitionists and psychiatric survivors, the Intent to Award for a 1.5 million dollar grant to run a peer respite. So why did we, anti-authoritarians, make an agreement with the Oregon Health Authority? And why do we consider this state-funded project in line with our abolitionist values?
There are many different respite structures; our peer respite will be a non-clinical alternative to hospitalization and other interventions for people in crisis. People 18 years or older will be able to stay in a home-like setting (a house that we will rent) for up to two weeks with no restrictions on coming and going freely from the respite. The respite will use a peer support model. This means that it will be staffed with people who have experienced crisis and forms of oppression that come with being survivors of mental health systems, so that they can give support to respite guests who have had similar experiences, with the aim of creating relationships of support based on shared understandings, that minimize power imbalances, and seek to aid guests in exploring themselves. Staff will be trained in Intentional Peer Support and will be available 24/7 for those staying at the respite. This will be a groundbreaking, non-coercive resource for our Southern Oregon community that will support people as they determine for themselves how to turn their crisis into a learning experience and how to move forward.
“I don’t want people to go through what I went through.” —Moss
Those of us involved in The Mountain Beaver House are already in community with one another, both as a support network and as friends. Our time together ranges from participating in overlapping mutual aid projects, Maastricht trainings, and jail and court support, to sending cat photos on sad days, drag show birthday outings, and sleepovers. In late 2021 we formed a local mad group that would meet outside as a support group, and to do activities together like swimming at our local rivers in the summertime. Soon thereafter a few of us formed the local chapter of the Hearing Voices Network. Many of us also volunteer or work for Stabbin’ Wagon, a harm reduction outreach program funded by Measure 110, and also the fiscal sponsor for our peer respite. While our crew met roughly three years ago, some of us have years of experience working on abolitionist projects and in peer support. One member of our team has even worked at a peer respite previously!
We believe in the power of community, and so much of community occurs at the grassroots outside of nonprofits or even state funded services. Our foundation is that we are people who try our best to embody our shared values with or without pay.
As we envisioned our peer respite, writing a proposal to submit to the Oregon Health Authority, we spent late nights together—sometimes until 4:00 AM!—in an endless discussion about how we would make this work. What would we want for ourselves and each other in a peer respite? What are things we needed during our own times of crisis, or found most helpful? How would we ensure that our work remained accountable to our communities, and who would hold us to our values? What lines would we be unwilling to cross? We all agreed that what was most important to us was presenting a proposal that honestly reflected who we are and what we believe in.
The proposal was sent in within the hour of the deadline, and so the experiment began.
Our movement, the psychiatric survivor movement, has long asked for peer respites. People in crisis, ourselves included, have asked for there to be close-by and accessible peer respites. These models have been in work ever since our communities fought to escape long-term psychiatric hospitalization in the 1970s. As Sera Davidow wrote in her recent blog post, one of the first proto-respites was created by Jennie Fulgham in 1978.
“On Our Own: Patient-Controlled Alternatives to the Mental Health System” by Judi Chamberlin was written 45 years ago and there are still only a handful of community structures that fit the supportive and autonomous models envisioned by in that watershed text. It is still true, as Judi Chamberlin wrote, that we don’t need doctors or nurses to do this work, as we have already witnessed together as a group of friends doing this work, mostly unpaid, in the same community. What we want is financial support for more resources and the space to take care of ourselves, which is what we believe the Oregon Health Authority has offered us.
“With or without us the state will be funding these respites. We don’t want this project to go to a group that co-opts our movement while continuing business as usual. This is for our community and we would do it with the values intended for peer respites.” —Derek
OHA’s request for grant proposals made clear that the requests should be modeled off of the Peer Support Handbook, created by the Wildflower Alliance (formerly the Western Massachusetts Recovery Learning Community) and Intentional Peer Support. The Wildflower Alliance is a support network in Western Massachusetts that uses peer-to-peer support and genuine human relationships (including a warm line that does not collect data or call the police), alternative healing practices, learning opportunities, and advocacy. They operate Afiya House, the peer respite in Western Massachusetts that the Handbook is based on, and that has been a major source of inspiration for us in creating The Mountain Beaver House (and where one of our team members previously worked). When we dream together as a group, we often envision support structures already created in their project. They are a pillar in the psychiatric survivor world and a resource worthy of replicating when possible.
As prison abolitionists, we work towards eliminating the prison system, which includes forced psychiatric practices and incarceration. While working to end coercive and punitive models that violate human rights, abolitionists also engage in non-reformist reforms. Whereas some mental health support organizations engage in what we’d call “reformists reforms,” such as CARE Court—it’s the same old psych ward practices with a new hat on—non-reformist reforms are changes within the system that bring us closer to liberation and the end of the exploitation of racial capitalism and state violence. In this case, that means we are ready to engage in an imperfect agreement with the Oregon Health Authority to provide a grassroots-led alternative crisis response structure in order to lessen police involvement and psychiatric incarceration in our community. Abolition is about experimentation and we’re willing to try out operating a peer respite under the agreement we’ve signed with the state.
We looked to many resources to help make this decision, one being “So is this Actually an Abolitionist Proposal or Strategy? A collection of resources to aid in evaluation and reflection” by Interrupting Criminalization, Project Nia & Critical Resistance. We are working adamantly to avoid many of the reformist-reforms they warn about. The respite will not be a mandatory service or used as punishment because everyone accessing it will be free to come and go as they please. People will be able to remain involved in their lives as they stay at the respite and will not be cut off from the people and places they know. The police cannot and will not be a part of how people will come to stay at the respite—guests will need to call us themselves and make a decision based in self-determination to stay. Eligibility will be based on if someone is in crisis, not on sobriety, medication compliance, or if they are refraining from self-harming.
To us, there are important value lines we will be holding ourselves and the project. The first that stands out: we will not allow the Oregon Health Authority’s peer respite program to be co-opted into a clinical partnership model. The majority of the peer respite grant agreements are in line with abolitionist views and practices that we hold. We are required to report on our fiscal practices and accountability as well as the demographics of who we serve—and we take these responsibilities very seriously. But we will not be required to take extensive notes on individuals, refer to diagnoses or give clinical supervisors the power to direct and control our work. The Peer Respite Charter, found in the Peer Respite Handbook, is one of our guiding compasses here, and we included the entire text of the charter in our grant proposal. Given how clearly the state articulated their openness to these values in their initial request for proposals—and our dedication to sticking to these values no matter what—this struck us as an agreement we could manage and, more importantly, live with. Without these pieces, none of us would be willing or eager to follow through on the project.
Where the respite could be construed as a reformist-reform—where it doesn’t challenge the system—is in the funding coming from the state itself, which helps legitimize the state as “progressive.” We do not forget that the system who will be funding us also runs the Oregon State Hospital, which has a history of electroconvulsive therapy, lobotomies, eugenics, and hydrotherapy and has consistently been criticized for overcrowding while mercilessly allowing people held without trial on “Aid and Assist” to languish in jails and under its care. A quick Wikipedia read-through on the horrific violence it enacts to this day should make clear why we oppose the institution. Furthermore, making this agreement with the state hasn’t and will not stop the mutual aid projects and political organizing we do outside of work. We will speak out against OHA and the Oregon State Hospital whether they fund us or not, and we will never stay silent to secure funding.
We know that when the state offers social movements funding, it is because the state would like a seat at our table and to slowly own said table. We know we are not immune to the pitfalls of nonprofit bureaucracy, and we do not want our values and efforts to be co-opted while we passionately fight to make this experiment work for our community. We believe that our awareness of these dangers, along with the abolitionist toolkit and our dedication the Peer Respite Charter, will be invaluable tools to help us maintain our abolitionist principles. We are committed to structuring our staff in a way that is in line with the Peer Respite Handbook, by leveling hierarchy as much as possible. Instead of managers or a director we will have committees to ensure many different avenues for accountability, community input, and co-reflection are involved.
This work looks different in a place like rural Southern Oregon than one might be picturing. Many who are not acquainted with Oregon as a whole sometimes view the entire state and all of its counties as mirroring Portland politics and views, which is far from the truth. Often, progressive policies come at a state level, not locally here in deeply conservative Jackson and Josephine counties. Healthcare for working poor people and Measure 110 which decriminalizes drugs are prime examples of major political contentions between state and county we see play out daily. When the state of Oregon granted us funding for the peer respite, a project we knew might not go far enough for our abolitionist community but that is wildly radical to the conservatives that control the crisis response networks in Southern Oregon, it also became a fight we’re not sure we are going to win.
On September 12th, researcher Sam Becker released internal City of Medford emails documenting targeted attempts by the City and the Medford Police to defund the Mountain Beaver House. The City and Police want to defund us because our parent organization, Stabbin’ Wagon, is outspoken about police terror, the War on Drugs, and the criminalization of unhoused people. The police and City of Medford are willing to reject funding and resources for life-saving crisis support and harm reduction work in order to silence their critics.
According to the records, Medford’s City Manager Brian Sjothun lobbied to revoke our funding. “Who do we need to contact at the State regarding this grant,” Sjothun wrote to governmental consultant Cindy Robert in March 2023. “Please ask the lobbyist who we should call,” he stated in a separate email. “We have an entire community of non-profits that are outraged over this grant and who it went to.” In another series of emails, Medford Police Chief Justin Ivens stated that funding the peer respite would cause “destruction,” and sought contact information for Oregon Health Authority.
Funding for Oregon’s peer respites was established in 2021 through mental health legislation House Bill 2980. This funding was designated by state legislature. We applied for the fund, and we were selected by the Oregon Health Authority. Peer respites are an innovative alternative to hospitalization for people experiencing mental health crises—that the City of Medford and its police would actively sabotage resources meant to support our local community is unconscionable.
In addition to contract interference, members of Stabbin’ Wagon, including the Director of the non-profit, were arrested by the Medford Police at a low-barrier HIV testing event they were hosting the same week that we were negotiating our peer respite contract in early August this year. We already know the Medford Police target our group for our political beliefs. You may read our full statement on the arrests here. This has opened us up to even further scrutiny from many directions, including OHA. Local far-right groups aligned with III% ideology and Ammon Bundy’s People’s Rights doxxed Stabbin’ Wagon staff and have been calling on the Oregon Health Authority to defund our work. News articles about our peer respite have been posted on far-right Facebook groups where we have been called everything from “ugly” and “evil” to a “whole bunch commies of commies sleeping with the Biden Obama Clinton communist regeem.”
We stand by our friends and co-workers and do not believe that going through the legal system—or fighting trumped, politically motivated criminal charges—makes anyone incapable of doing this work. In fact, we believe people who navigate the legal system should be prioritized in doing peer support work as it is something that poor and marginalized people navigate every day. Who is better than ourselves to do peer support work? Withholding the grant on the basis that some of us navigate(d) the legal system in itself is completely out of line with peer support values.
We have signed the contract and we await OHA’s signature in return. We do so with honesty and integrity. Funding a grassroots crisis response project for and by psychiatric survivors shouldn’t be a radical concept. Funding alternatives to the prison system that let people decide for themselves how to navigate their crisis shouldn’t be a radical concept. We live another day and we want others to live more days the ways they want to live.
We are here and ready to create the Southern Oregon peer respite as soon as we are funded. Our communities desperately need more ways to support people in crisis, and we hope the Oregon Health Authority can overcome it’s critics and get back on track to doing what it set out to do: creating peer support respites led by grassroots groups. To be continued.
Contact us at info[at]mountainbeaverhouse.org
Or find us on instagram: @mountainbeaverhouse
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.
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