Homeless programs reorganized for better results
Governments in the region are reorganizing their homeless-related programs amid claims of limited progress dealing with the crisis. Many residents might not be seeing much improvement, however, with no real-time homeless count available.
Metro recently announced that its two voter-approved homeless programs are being moved into their own "stand-alone unit" to better meet community expectations.
The programs distribute funds from the $652.8 million affordable housing bond and 10-year supportive services measure to the three counties within the boundaries of the elected regional government. They are being transferred from the Planning, Development and Research Department to the Office of the Chief Operating Officer.
"Our housing team will continue its work to functionally end chronic homelessness in greater Portland, as part of the 10-year program created by the voters in May 2020 and launched in July 2021, as well as its work to build new apartments for 12,000 people around our region, apartments that will have affordable rents for the next 60 years.," Metro Chief Operating Officer Marissa Madrigal told the Portland Tribune.
Madrigal does not foresee any significant increase in administrative costs from the transfer.
The announcement coincides with Metro's release of a report on the first year of spending from the supportive services measure, which was approved by voters in May 2020. According to the report, the funding housed more than 1,600 homeless people, helped more than 9,200 people avoid being evicted, and created 741 new year-round shelter beds.
Some of that is below Metro's original goals, however. It previously promised to house more than 2,400 households. Metro promised to create 700 new shelter beds by June of this year, however, and only promised to prevent 1,000 households from being evicted.
The spending was well below the available revenue, however. The tax on larger businesses and higher income earners brought in $240 million during its first fiscal year. That is significantly more than the original $150 million estimate. But the report said only $56 million had actually been spent.
And the spending was not even across all three counties within metro's boundaries. Although Multnomah County spent 38% of its available funds, Washington County only spent 24% and Clackamas County spent just 6.6%.
That prompted Metro Council President Lynn Peterson and Metro Councilor Christine Lewis to release a statement on Sept. 2 that the committee overseeing the spending would identify "the impediments and barriers to spending that existed in Clackamas County in the first year of the program — both operational and political."
The counties are scheduled to release their first annual spending reports on Oct. 31 and present them to Metro's Supportive Housing Services Oversight Committee in December. Metro and county officials say the spending — and number of people serviced — should ramp up in coming years as programs build capacity.
Results hard for many to see
Despite Metro's cited progress, homelessness still remains the most pressing issue in Portland, especially conflicts between encampments and neighbors. The city currently lists more than 350 active campsites in the city. Local media outlets regularly feature stories on the conflicts. Here are just a few recent examples:
Aug. 15: KGW-TV reports that families in North Portland are selling their homes because of camping along the Peninsula Crossing Trail.
Sept. 15: KOIN 6 News reports that owners of Curt's RV Storage in St. Johns are blaming a nearby homeless camp for tens of thousands of dollars' worth of thefts and damages.
Sept. 15: KGW-TV News reports that a man living in a homeless camp in Southwest Portland is shattering windows of cars driving down the streets.
Sept. 16: FOX 12 News reports that organizers of the upcoming Polish Festival in Southeast Portland cancelled it because of homeless camp near the Polish Library Building Association where it was scheduled to be held.
Sept. 19: KOIN 6 News reports that neighbors along outer Southeast Powell Boulevard are complaining about people living in dozens of RVs and cars in front of their homes.
Sept. 21: FOX 12 News reports the city is planning to remove a homeless camp at Laurelhurst Park after neighbors hire a lawyer who says an arborist reported that falling tree limbs pose a threat to anyone under them.
Sept. 21: KOIN 6 News reports that the Saints Peter and Paul Episcopal Church is defending itself from accusations that its weekly dinners are supporting a homeless camp blamed for late night gunfire the previous week.
Sept. 21: Several Portlanders describe problems created by homeless people in their neighborhoods during an hour-long town hall on homelessness. Mayor Ted Wheeler responds by saying, "I've heard our neighbors and they expect us to do more and be better and we will."
City, county also reorganizing
Portland began reorganizing its homeless programs in November 2021 during its semi-annual budget adjustment process. The council authorized the creation of a Street Service Coordination Center structured as unified command structure with representatives of Multnomah County to better "direct, plan, and coordinate responses to street behaviors and homelessness."
Mayor Ted Wheeler activated the coordination center, overseen by Community Safety Division Director Mike Myers, on Sept. 14. By then, Portland had contracted with city-county Joint Office of Homeless Services to reserve 98 beds in 11 homeless shelters on a daily basis. They are offered to homeless people who are displaced during encampment sweeps.
The availability of the shelter beds has allowed the city's Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program to meet the legal requirements to resume homeless camp sweeps that were all but suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic. In recent months, large encampments have been cleared and cleaned up in Old Town, the Columbia Slough, the Big Four Corners Natural Area and along Northeast 33rd Avenue.
Not everyone accepts the offers, however. According to the city, as of mid-September, only 850 people initially expressed interest in shelter and just 353 have used a shelter bed for at least one night. Vacancies average between 14 and 20 every day.
Wheeler recently said JOHS is beta-testing an app to show availabilities in all shelters. There is still no real-time count of all homeless people in the region, however.
Portland also is finally making real progress on the $258 million affordable housing bond approved by voters in 2016. Four projects have now been completed and four more are scheduled to open by the end of the year. The most recent one was the 110-unit Cathedral Park Apartments in St. Johns that was dedicated on Sept. 21. A total of 900 bond-funded affordable homes will have opened by the end of 2022.
And Portland has begun opening the Safe Rest Villages that Commissioner Dan Ryan has championed, although not as fast as originally planned.
The Portland City Council and Multnomah County Commission have also made a number of changes to the management of the Joint Office of Homeless Services when they renewed the intergovernmental agreement that created it in April. Among other things, they created an Executive Leadership Group to improve communication and coordination between the two governments. The group consists of the county chair, a city commissioner and two staffers they designate. Chair Deborah Kafoury praises Commissioner Dan Ryan, the city's designee, as an "enthusiastic" partner who has helped increase shelter capacity from 650 to 2,500 beds during the pandemic.
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