Metro chief promises visible progress on homeless crisis soon
In a sign of how critical the homeless crisis has become, Metro President Lynn Peterson focused on the issue in her State of the Region address — and she did not pull any punches about the dire situation.
"All you have to do is look around to see that as a country and as a region we are not measuring up. Our most vulnerable people are unhoused, at risk, and our region is suffering. The situation is urgent, and you have a right to be upset. I'm upset," Peterson told the City Club of Portland on Friday, Jan. 21.
Peterson blamed then-President Ronald Reagan for creating the homeless crisis by cutting federal housing and other funds decades ago.
But, as bad as the situation is today, Peterson said progress is being made and promised that things will start to look different within six months, thanks in large part to the 10-year, $2.4 billion supportive services ballot measure approved by Metro voters in 2020. The Metro Council recently approved agreements with Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties for spending the money.
"By June 30 of this year, we expect the counties, who implement this work, to add 900 new year-round shelter beds, which will be in addition to the approximately 2,200 shelter beds in the region, and stabilize 2,500 people in permanent housing across the Portland region. One thousand people have already received funding to help stay in their homes and avoid living on the street," Peterson said in her online address.
Despite admitting that people have a right to be upset, however, Peterson also criticized People for Portland during the question-and-answer session that followed her prepared remarks. The nonprofit organization recently reported spending $1 million to pressure Oregon, Metro, Multnomah County and Portland officials to do more to reduce homelessness, crimes and garbage.
Among other things, the organization has run TV and online ads that accused Peterson, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury and Mayor Ted Wheeler of breaking previous promises to end homelessness.
"People for Portland is a dark-money group that does not have to reveal its funders and has flooded our airwaves. It increases cynicism and distrust of in government, It undermines what we are doing," said Peterson, who urged the organization's donors to give more to social service agencies instead.
Metro is the elected regional government serving the urban portions of Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties. It provides a wide range of services, from managing solid waste ,to transportation planning and funding, to operating such spectator facilities as the Oregon Zoo.
Despite that wide-ranging wheelhouse, all Peterson's prepared remarks and many of her follow-up comments were about homelessness and the related affordable housing crises.
Metro is relatively new to both issues. Although it helped fund some affordable housing projects along transit lines in the past, the elected council first declared the lack of affordable housing an issue of regional concern in 2018, when it successfully asked voters to approve a $652.8 million ballot measure. Peterson said Metro is now 75% of the way to its goal of 3,900 homes from the bond, while only allocating 48% of the revenue so far.
"We are on pace to outperform our commitments to the voters," Peterson said.
The housing and services measures both distribute funds to government partners that spend them under guidelines set by Metro. Now Peterson wants the agency to get more involved. She has asked Metro's land use Policy Advisory Committee — which includes representatives from the region's cities, counties, special districts, and the public — to help communities develop strategies to site additional emergency shelters and safe camp locations.
However, when asked what can be done for the homeless residents who refuse to move into shelters or camps, Peterson had no easy answer. She said homelessness traumatizes people and makes then distrustful, and that it is best to try to work with them where they are.
Peterson also said Metro has reorganized the regional garbage collection program it suspended at the beginning of the pandemic to resume collecting the piles of trash that have become so visible. She said the Regional Illegal Dumping Patrol now has more teams than before COVID-19 hit, and it has collected 418 tons of waste in the last six months.
"With time and hard work, good things happen in our region. It's your expectation as voters, as residents, as business owners, as Oregonians. You deserve results and we are working hard to bring them to you," Peterson said.
The question-and-answer session was moderated by Marcus Mundy, executive director of the Coalition of Communities of Color, an alliance of culturally specific, community-based organizations.
Among other things, Peterson said Metro is working to safely reopen all of the visitor and spectator venues it manages. She anticipated the I-5 Bridge Replace and I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement projects will move forward in some form because locals funds are available to match the federal dollars in the bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed Congress. And she touted the two new nature parks Metro recently opened, Newell Creek Canyon in Clackamas County and Chehalem Ridge in Washington County.
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