Tribune Special Report: Homelessness crisis, from Salem to Portland to Clackamas County
Cities in Oregon struggling with homelessness are expected to be one of the biggest beneficiaries under legislation sponsored by House Speaker Tina Kotek.
But not every city official fully supports her measure. Some worry that it could limit local governments' control over where homeless shelters are built.
House Bill 4001, one of Kotek's legislative priorities, is designed to help boost the number of homeless shelters in Oregon by this fall. On Wednesday, Feb. 12, Kotek, D-Portland, presented the House Human Services and Housing Committee with an updated version of her proposal that said she would increase the legislation's original $40 million to $60 million as a result of the state's higher than expected tax collections.
"We're trying to really take an emergency mindset to the thousands and thousands of Oregonians who are experiencing unsheltered homelessness," Kotek told the committee.
Money allocated by the bill would be distributed to local governments and nonprofits through competitive grants. The bill also would require local governments to waive land-use and zoning restrictions that otherwise would prevent the siting of shelters, a provision that expires in July 2021.
Most witnesses supported the bill. Ariel Nelson, lobbyist for the League of Oregon Cities, said that her group supported the new shelter funding. But she said the association wasn't taking a position on the siting provision because cities disagreed on it.
Rob Drake, city manager for Cornelius and former Beaverton mayor, told the committee that, while he appreciated the bill's intent, it could mean homeless shelters being built next to daycares or other sensitive operations as well as commercial districts.
"The big issue for us is losing local control," he said.
"How much control do we have right now when we have all these camps that are on our sidewalks?" shot back Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend. She specifically referenced the homeless encampment in downtown Salem.
Rep. Tina Kotek
Capitol Phone: 503-986-1200
Capitol Address: 900 Court St NE, 269, Salem, OR 97301
Wilsonville Mayor Tim Knapp raised similar concerns in written testimony, and took issue with how the bill also could allow siting of shelters in rural, unincorporated lands outside of urban growth boundary areas. He wrote that these areas lack public transit or social services and the bill could lead to the creation of "centralized, rural low-income zones."
Samantha Bayer, associate policy counsel for the Oregon Farm Bureau, said that the bill could permit shelters on farmland in areas without drinking water, fire protection and septic service.
Kotek said she is continuing to work on the bill, and said it only provides one-time money to help shelters going but expected ongoing operating costs to be an issue. "I suspect a lot of people are going to be back here in 2021 asking for operation dollars," she said.
— Jake Thomas, Oregon Capital Bureau
Portland: First and only public hearing on Metro homeless measure
Community members got a chance on Thursday, Feb. 13, to weigh in on a new tax that aims to help homeless people in the greater Portland area.
The Metro Council plans to work on the language of the measure on Tuesday, Feb. 18. The elected regional government could decide whether to put the measure on the May primary ballot as early as Thursday, Feb. 20.
Metro is a regional government, serving the three-county Portland area, and covers such issues as the Oregon Zoo, solid waste disposal and the urban growth boundary. Homelessness services has not been part of the Metro charter.
The Metro council is looking at raising taxes on wealthier people who live in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties.
Nick Christensen, a senior public affairs specialist for Metro, said staff is discussing a 1% tax on individuals who make more than $125,000 per year, or couples who make at least $250,000 per year. The money would help fund things like mental health services, health care and additional treatment services. It would not be for building more affordable housing.
Metro voters approved an affordable housing bond at the November 2018 general election.
Where do you stand on the issue of state and regional responses to the crisis of homelessness? Send a letter to the editor to the Tribune today.
A large number of people and service organizations testified in favor of the tax on Thursday, including Katrina Holland who is a board member of the HereTogether advocacy organization that has proposed the measure.
"It's long overdue," she said. "We had a housing crisis for many years."
Others said supportive housing provides a critical foundation for wellness. Jennifer Langston said she has experienced homelessness in the past and is in favor of the tax.
But many people expressed concerns with the measure, saying more work is needed. One person testified that shelters are not the answer. Others questioned whether the money would be spent correctly.
"Our money isn't being spent the way it should be now, so what assurances do we have that this will be any different?" Gary Marschke asked.
Dan Newth is a vendor for Street Roots, a newspaper that provides income and visibility for homeless people. He said has experienced homelessness firsthand. He told Metro officials, "Policies are beneficial for staff and negative for those trying to get into housing."
Another man complained that the tax is not equitable, saying, "My work is being devalued to make a better life for me and my family and coworkers. I feel like I'm an ATM. I'm not a billionaire — I'm blue-collar."
Cascade Policy Institute President John Charles Jr. said Metro doesn't have many answers so far and the process has been rushed.
"How are they proposing to get the money?" he asked. "How much money? Where is it going to go? What are the metrics for measuring success? They don't, by their own admission, know any of that."
KOIN 6, a news partner of Pamplin Media Group, took some of these questions to Metro President Lynn Peterson and HereTogether. Peterson said Metro will set up an oversight committee to provide greater accountability.
"The reality is, this is something that we've been talking about for years," Katrina Holland said. "Quite frankly, after the housing bond passed (in 2019), immediately advocates in the community were thinking we need to pair these dollars with services dollars and we tried multiple things but it didn't go well."
Holland said she is optimistic the current measure will end up on the ballot.
— Jennifer Dowling/KOIN 6 News
Clackamas County: Metro takes its message on the road
In its headlong rush to refer an annual $250 million to $300 million homeless services measure to the May 19 primary election ballot, the Metro regional government held a forum in Milwaukie on Thursday, Feb. 11. It was one of three in each of its counties.
At the forum of roughly 100 citizens — about 30% self-identified as service providers — heard from local leaders who spoke passionately about the need to take action.
Several speakers mentioned misconceptions about who the homeless are and how they became that way.
Clackamas County Commissioner Sonja Fischer recounted talking to a professional woman nearing retirement age who became homeless due to a medical crisis who said, simply, "I didn't do anything wrong."
"We have to tackle this monstrous issue from all sides," Fischer said.
She suggested that people consider societal issues in history abhorred by nearly everyone — slavery, forced sterilization or criminalization of homosexuality — and compare it to the level of wealth experienced by the upper class in the United States while homelessness still rampages.
Jim Bernard, Clackamas County commission chair, acknowledged the already-heavy tax burden residents in the county experience, but asked, "How else can we solve this?"
Metro Chair Lynn Peterson added, "The crisis has gotten to the point of overrunning the available services."
BrocheAroe Fabian, communications manager for HereTogether, a nonprofit working with Metro on the measure, said she's experienced homelessness. She shared what the organization thinks is the causation for the worsening crisis: Closure of mental health facilities without sufficient resources in communities; a reduction in subsidized housing by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; and the post-recession economic recovery that grew the population in the metro area but not the supply of housing.
Forum members broke into small groups to provide organizers feedback on what success would look like, how to demonstrate accountability and what factors might not yet have been discussed before Metro refers the measure for the ballot.
Some attendees, familiar with homelessness through providing services or personal experience, advocated for multiple centralized services to help stabilize those seeking to leave homelessness.
Other citizens expressed their concern with the proposed measure and their own tax bill.
"In Multnomah County we're getting hammered with taxes and fees," said one woman who described herself as nearing retirement. "I don't think Metro should have asked for its last tax measure if this was coming up. This is more important."
Metro took a successful $652.8 million affordable housing bond measure to voters in the November 2019 election.
The regional agency also has long planned to refer a $4.2 billion regional transportation funding measure to the November ballot so it hopes to have the homeless tax on the May ballot.
She also told Metro officials that she felt the community "input" was disingenuous, as she felt certain the tax was going ahead regardless of what citizens said. "I don't think you have any intention of putting the brakes on this thing; it's full speed ahead regardless."
"Nothing is done until it's done," said Metro Councilor Christine Lewis after the meeting, adding that it's better for Metro to be a part of this measure so all three counties are equally represented and benefitted. The communities in Lewis's Metro district include Lake Oswego, West Linn, Wilsonville, Happy Valley and parts of unincorporated Clackamas County.
She said those communities have tremendously different needs, and said she understands the measure has to work for everyone.
The hurried pace of the measure's development did not concern Lewis, who said Metro could easily put it together in a matter of weeks once public input was gathered.
Other taxpayers at the forum expressed concern over the potential layers of bureaucracy the measure would create and worried about governmental waste. "This could be a sinkhole for more funds," a woman said. "You folks have an endless appetite for money and if this keeps up you'll have a whole lot more people losing their homes."
Another suggested: "If this is really a crisis, go into the money you already have and don't single out a certain population to get more."
However, some attendees liked the idea of a regional government taking the reins on a regional problem, pointing out the inefficiencies of various cities and counties all nibbling at the edges of the issue with little coordination.
— Leslie Pugmire Hole
Jake Thomas is a reporter for the Oregon Capital Bureau, a news partner of Pamplin Media Group. Leslie Pugmire Hole is editor of the West Linn Tidings. Jennifer Dowling is a reporter for KOIN 6 News, a news partner of PMG.
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