Wheeler: Homeless spending straining city budget
Mayor Ted Wheeler is proposing to spend nearly 7% of the city's discretionary general fund revenue on direct services to the homeless and those at risk of homelessness next year — a dramatic increase over just a few years ago.
When Wheeler released is proposed budget on May 1, he said spending on the homeless is straining the budgets of all city general fund bureaus. That includes Portland Parks & Recreation, which is facing a $6.3 million cut in the budget that takes effect on July 1.
"If we were not experiencing the homeless crisis, we would have $32 million more dollars for other programs," Wheeler said. "We would have a surplus, not a deficit."
But Wheeler actually understated the amount of general fund dollars he is proposing to spend on homeless services. He was only talking about the amount proposed for the city-county Joint Office of Homeless Services, where it will be matched by a similar amount by Multnomah County.
In response to a request for information by the Portland Tribune, the City Budget Office said Wheeler also is proposing to spend $5.7 million to support the existing Homeless and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program. Plus $877,870 for a new Hygiene Street Response pilot.
The total, at $38.57 million, is almost 7 percent of the $577.3 million general fund dollars projected to be collected next year.
And, according to the budget office, it does not include funds spent by other general fund bureaus that routinely interact with the homeless, such as the police, fire and parks bureaus.
"We don't have a current total count of the investments that the city provides related to the homeless crisis as it pertains to other core services, which includes efforts by Portland Fire and Rescue, the Parks Bureau, the Police Bureau and others," Interim Budget Director Jessica Kinard told the Tribune.
Research says the figure could be $10 million or more. According to a review conducted in June 2018, other city bureaus spent $29 million serving and interacting with the homeless over the previous five years, with $10 million budgeted for current fiscal year.
And much of that spending was uncoordinated.
"Despite this rapid ramp-up in city spending and the complexity of the issues, coordination among the bureaus is largely informal. Protocols, training, and support for staff conducting these activities are generally developed independently, as is collection and reporting of program data," reads a memo summarizing the findings.
Most of the direct homeless spending has only taken place since the joint office was created in the last years of former Mayor Charlie Hales' administration. It was created in response to the rapidly increasing homeless crisis being fueled by the shortage of affordable house. Until then, the county was responsible for funding most homeless services. But since the joint office was created, the city has about as much money invested in it as the county.
And, despite the spending, both Wheeler and Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish expect the number of homeless in Portland to increase.
"The number of baby boomers leaving the workforce with no savings is increasing, and many of them are expected to end up in shelters," said Fish, who is the strongest advocate on the council for permanent supportive housing units that include social services to keep their residents from becoming homeless again.
Wheeler and Fish both said the city, region and state are moving in the right direction by increasing shelters and building more publicly subsidized affordable housing units, including those funding by bonds approved by Portland and metro voters. But, until enough of them come on line to make a difference, the share of city general fund dollars going to homeless services is only expected to increase.
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty has said she will offer amendments Wheeler's proposed budget to eliminate the Portland Police Bureau's Gun Violence Reduction Team and curtail general fund spending on what she considers non-critical programs, including the restoration of the historic Mt. Tabor reservoirs. No other member of the council indicated they would support her by press time, however.
You can learn more about Wheeler's proposed budget at www.portlandoregon.gov/cbo.
The City Council public hearing on Mayor Ted Wheeler's proposed budget is scheduled for 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., Thursday, May 9, at the World Forestry Center, Miller Hall, 4033 S.W. Canyon Road, Portland.
The council is scheduled to vote on the budget at its regular meeting on Wednesday, June 12.
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