Wheeler defends homeless response
Ted Wheeler admits he underestimated the magnitude of the homeless crisis when he ran for mayor in 2016 — and that it is likely to get visibly worse in Portland before it gets better.
Wheeler made the admissions when he appeared before the Portland Tribune editorial board on Tuesday, May 7. He also announced that he will file for reelection after Labor Day during the interview.
When Wheeler first ran for mayor, he promised to provide enough shelter space for half the people living on the streets by the end of his second year in office. Although the city and Multnomah County have doubled the number of shelter beds since he won the election, Wheeler conceded that more people appear to be living outdoors now than ever before.
"It's a lot harder. Absolutely. It's a lot harder. I'll cop to that any second of the day," Wheeler said about his campaign promises.
"I don't think any of us had clarity on the depth of this issue. I will certainly say for my own part, I certainly had no idea that the United States would be at a true economic pinnacle and yet all across this country, and it isn't just the West Coast, folks," Wheeler continued.
Despite that, Wheeler believes the region is moving in the right direction to reduce the number of people without homes in years to come. He pointed to the tens of millions of dollars the city and county is spending on the Joint Office of Homeless Services, voter approval of the Portland and Metro affordable housing bonds, and the City Council's commitment to create 2,000 additional unit of permanents supportive housing, which includes social services to help prevent residents from becoming homeless again.
But at the same time, Wheeler was quick to say more needs to be done.
"I believe we have some of the right formulas, but not at the right scale," Wheeler said.
Wheeler spoke after he proposed a budget for the fiscal year that begins on Juy 1 that dedicates nearly 7 percent of the discretionary general fund dollars to direct homeless services, they largest amount ever and a significant increase over just a few years ago.
"We went from basically zero to $33 million just at the city of Portland over a course of a couple of years in terms of what we're spending specifically on the homeless crisis that doesn't even include the housing," said Wheeler referring to the funds proposed for the city-county Joint Office of Homeless Services. Other existing and new city-only direct homeless service programs brings the proposed general fund total to $38.5 million, or almost 7 percent of the record 577.3 million general fund dollars projected to be collected next year.
And that does not even count the estimated $10 million a year being spent by other general fund agencies that interact with the homeless on a daily basis, including the Portland Police Bureau, Portland Fire & Rescue, and Portland Parks & Recreation.
Wheeler said the increased spending has already allowed Portland to improve its response to the homeless crisis, including taking over the cleanup of camps on Oregon Department of Transportation properties within the city limits.
"The year before I got to Portland City Hall, just three years ago, the city of Portland cleaned up, I believe it was 139 camps total. This year we will have cleaned up over 3,000 camps," Wheeler said.
Despite the increased spending, Wheeler said Portland and other cities are fighting against multiple trends creating homelessness, including increasing housing costs — especially in West Coast cities — a drug addiction epidemic, and a lack of mental health treatment programs.
"When I get together with my colleagues from all across the country, people are amazed by how quickly this crisis is unfolding from Hawaii to Maine. It's happening everywhere and the drivers are the same," Wheeler said.
Wheeler also admitted that Portland's willingness to provide services is attracting homeless people from outside the city, although he said that most are coming from within the region.
"Consider this. Clackamas County and Washington County, I don't think anybody would argue that they don't have a housing crisis, that there aren't homeless people in Washington and Clackamas counties, that they're not subject to mental health or addiction issues. Yet Washington County and Clackamas County have exactly zero adult shelter beds that are full time funded by government. They have zero. And therefore, if somebody is homeless, they are definitely going to find their way to Multnomah County or to the city of Portland. So that's a regional conversation we need to have.
Pressed by the Portland Tribune editorial board, Wheeler declined to commit to any metric for measuring any specific goal next year, saying the problem is too big.
"As an elected official, I know I'm supposed to say nothing, but it's only going to get to better from here, but I personally don't believe that, so I'm not going to tell you that. Okay? We're in this for the long haul. There are no easy answers to this problem. If there were easy answers, they'd already be found," Wheeler said.
You can read a previous Portland Tribune story on the issue here.