You think Portland's problem is bad?
With more than 12,000 homeless people recorded in the county surrounding Seattle in 2018 — and some 55,000 living on the streets of Los Angeles County at the same time — Multnomah County's 4,000 unsheltered individuals is self-evidently much smaller in comparison.
And while local officials say the 2017 Point In Time Count numbers are almost certainly too low — with some believing the true figure is twice as high — they're still touting the 11 percent decline in unsheltered people counted year over year.
They say a cooperative effort by city and county has doubled the number of people receiving shelter service to 8,000 last year from 4,000.
Armed with loads of data points, Mayor Ted Wheeler, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury and Joint Office of Homeless Services director Marc Jolin were whistling a somewhat optimistic tune during a Portland Business Alliance forum on Wednesday, June 20 at the Sentinel Hotel.
"We can not get fooled into believing that homelessness is solely a local issue," Wheeler said. "We need a Marshall Plan for American that acknowledges the upstream problems."
"Just like an emergency room, a shelter can be the difference between life and death for people living on the streets," Kafoury added. "But also like an emergency room, it doesn't really solve the problem."
Wheeler thanked the merchants and executives in attendance for supporting his proposed increase of the city's Business License Tax to 2.6 percent, which was approved on June 13. He said the general fund dollars will be used in a number of ways, including:
• Funding a community health care manager at the Portland Fire Bureau, who can monitor frequent callers and connect them with services
• Hiring a homeless liaison at the Portland Police Bureau and creating two new behavioral response teams that pair officers with mental health clinicians.
• Adding five more park rangers who will patrol the waterfront, Old Town/Chinatown as well as the East Side.
• Increasing graffiti clean-up funding by $400,000 this year (on top of a $600,000 boost last year).
• Earmarking another $3 million for transitioning people from streets or a shelter to permanent housing, with the money supporting at least 240 placements a year.
• Creating an emergency manager position at the joint office to coordinate sheltering efforts during the coldest winter months.
• Doubling the number of treatment beds at Central City Concern from 6 to 12
Practically the only topic that wasn't on the agenda was the recently-sold Wapato Jail, with Kafoury dismissing the matter as something "we don't need to talk about" anymore.
"The county has sold the property. We're still hoping that it goes back on the tax rolls and returns value to the taxpayers," she said in a follow-up interview after the 90-minute event.
Jolin, who heads the joint office, said no one was eager to return to the bad old days before 2016, when the city housing bureau served homeless singles while the county focused on families, youths and those fleeing domestic violence — leading to numerous inefficiencies.
"We are in fact much better organized," Jolin said of the present moment, with the caveat that "there are so many people out there that we don't have the resources to serve."
As for a regional approach to ending homelessness, Kafoury said most hopes are pinned on the $625.8 million affordable housing bond Metro will place on the November 2018 ballot. Kafoury has already chipped in $10,000 from her surplus campaign funds to support the political action committee boosting the bond.
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