Wheeler: Homeless system needs new thinking, resources, solutions
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said parts of the homeless services system are not working and "require new thinking, new resources, and new solutions."
Wheeler made the statement Wednesday, Sept. 23, after a dispute erupted between the mayor and Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury over the needs of homeless shelter space just weeks before the Nov. 3 general election. Wheeler is running for reelection.
During an editorial board interview with The Oregonian/Oregonlive.com, Wheeler said the city-county Joint Office of Housing Services needs to open more shelter space or he will consider pulling Portland out of it.
The newspaper reported the story on Tuesday, Sept. 22.
Wheeler also said he is keeping the 100-bed homeless shelter at the Charles Jordan Community Center open until next May and will create an additional 300 shelter beds in the near future. The city previously created three outdoor shelter spaces that offer 135 beds.
"We want to work with our partners and encourage them to join us in focusing on the chronic homeless population. But if necessary, the city of Portland will go its own direction," The Oregonian quoted Wheeler as saying.
In response, Kafoury called the threatened withdrawal "outrageous" and accused Wheeler of trying to score points during his reelection race against challenger Sarah Iannarone.
"I can't speak for the mayor's team, but my team at the county is not shy when it comes to demanding the best from the Joint Office," Kafoury wrote. "And it's not so I can look good or win a campaign. It's because the work literally is about the lives of our most vulnerable community members. This work is for them, not any of us."
In fact, although Joint Office of Housing Services has doubled shelter space since Wheeler was elected in 2016, it has not created any additional capacity since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year. And although the joint office has opened new shelters, including one at the Oregon Convention Center, it has only created enough new space to allow social distancing at the existing shelters.
"We're still at 1,400 government-funded beds year-round. We were able to maintain capacity first by opening the physical distancing shelters and then shifting those beds (with the exception of Oregon Convention Center, which is still open) to motels," county Communications Director Denis Theriault emailed the Portland Tribune in response to a request for comment.
Wheeler's office issued a statement Wednesday that praised the work done by the joint office, but also said parts of the system aren't working and much more needs to be done.
"The challenges facing our community now — exacerbated by COVID — are extreme, and require new thinking, new resources, and new solutions," Wheeler wrote. "I am prepared for an honest and transparent conversation about where we are collectively succeeding, and where we aren't — I hope my County colleagues are as well."
Iannarone issued a statement Wednesday that said in part, "We can't endure four more years of Ted Wheeler's go-it-alone attitude. We're stronger together, with our relationships powering our policy. I stand with Chair Kafoury and the thousands of houseless individuals who benefit from the Joint Office of Homeless Services in demanding our City does not divest from this vital public service at the core of Portland's most obvious street-level crisis. Houselessness impacts all of us and this is no time for political games."
Wheeler's complete statement
"I respect and am proud of the City-County partnership on homelessness. And, we must all acknowledge that despite that good work, we are experiencing unprecedented homelessness and livability challenges throughout our community. We must do better to connect the people living on our streets with safe shelter and services. I am prepared for an honest and transparent conversation about where we are collectively succeeding, and where we aren't — I hope my County colleagues are as well.
"Generations of federal divestment have left cities and counties on their own to solve problems that require resources only our federal and state partners can bring to the table. Despite that headwind, we are making steady progress. Every year, 12,000 people are safe in a home instead of surviving outside — double the number since 2015. We've added new shelters with more and better services to connect people to permanent housing.
"At my direction, the Joint Office is also working to bring several hundred new 24-hour shelter spaces to our community for the cold and rainy months ahead. But this is not enough. Anyone traveling around Portland understands the need for more action to address street camping by providing more and better places for people to go.
"The challenges facing our community now — exacerbated by COVID — are extreme, and require new thinking, new resources, and new solutions. The Joint Office is bringing solutions to the table. The County's mental health and drug addiction service system plays an important role. And, the City is accountable for livability and public safety. I am prepared to continue to prioritize the City's resources by investing in this very vulnerable population and making sure our community spaces are safe and accessible for everyone."
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