County votes to lease Foster Road site for homeless shelter
After a contentious three-hour meeting of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, held in their chambers on January 25, by a 4-1 vote the County elected to sign a lease for a homeless shelter on the former "Winley Cash & Carry" property at 6144 S.E. Foster Road.
At the meeting, scores of people testified for and against leasing the cavernous free-span structure, which will be outfitted with as many as 120 beds when it opens in late summer or early fall.
Many neighbors told the Commissioners they were concerned about what they said was a "lack of transparency" in selecting the site. Others brought up the nearness of the shelter to the Mt. Scott Learning Center, a nonprofit school tailored to special-needs students, located just south of S.E. Holgate Boulevard, directly behind the mini mall where the shelter is located.
"We are in a crisis with housing and homelessness; it's not something anyone can deny," Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson said. "This isn't easy. But sometimes, this job is about making the hard decision, and trying to go the best way."
Some present supported Vega Pederson's statement, and said they welcomed the shelter in their neighborhood, and thanked the Commissioners for taking steps to address homelessness.
However, Commissioner Loretta Smith opposed the lease agreement, saying that neighbors should have had more time to comment and shape shelter operations before the lease was signed. Further, Smith suggested that it was "unconscionable" to spend about $2 million for renovating the leased space.
"Until we understand where the money is coming from, how much money we've got, and what exactly we are paying for, we cannot approve the lease," said Smith, who is currently campaigning for the office of Portland City Commissioner.
Joint Office of Homeless Services Director Marc Jolin told Commissioners that the Foster Road shelter is designed to bring in people who hadn't been able to engage in traditional shelter – because it will be open and staffed 24 hours a day; and it allows couples to sleep together, and to bring their pets.
What some neighbors and businesspeople said concerns them is that they believe this "low-barrier" shelter won't require participants to be sober or drug-free – although using drugs or alcohol inside the shelter will be forbidden, and would be cause for removal from the shelter, according to the nonprofit which will operate it.
The lease document shows the agreement will span a decade, with two five-year renewal options, starting at $13,390 a month, reaching $16,322 a month by the tenth year. The City of Portland and Multnomah County will split the cost of the $2 million renovation; the county shelter's annual operating budget will be roughly $1.2 million, not including any attached social services.
Chair Deborah Kafoury remarked, "We have committed unprecedented new ongoing resources to the Joint Office of Homeless Services, which served 30,000 people last year, and will serve more next year ... but we need to do more.
"So, I am voting today for this shelter, because I know it will save lives," Kafoury said, casting her vote.
The County also owns, and the same nonprofit organization operates, the Willamette Shelter at S.E. Milwaukie Avenue at Mitchell Street in Westmoreland. It has similar rules; and most neighbors and the SMILE neighborhood association seem to agree it has posed no significant problems for the community at that location, in the year it has been in operation.