New investments are made possible by unanticipated revenue coming to both jurisdictions.
This week the City of Portland and Multnomah County unveiled a joint plan to designate $38 million in unanticipated revenue into solving the region's seemingly intractable homelessness crisis. Multnomah County is kicking in $19.2 million while the City of Portland is contributing $18.8 million.
The two jurisdictions have business tax revenue that is running about $90 million more than budgeted, giving local politicians an unprecedented opportunity to "go big" on several issues that are plaguing the Portland metro area, including homelessness, public safety, and mental health.
While $38 million seems like a large investment, given the scope of the homelessness issues in the Portland area, some may wonder if the additional funding will really make a difference. This one-time funding is in addition to the $150 million that the two jurisdictions have already budgeted towards homeless services for the fiscal year that began on July 1st.
City and County officials outlined several key uses for the money, including:
- Creation of up to 400 new shelter beds, to include congregate shelter spaces (such as villages), motel rooms, and sleeping pods.
- The addition of 20-25 additional street outreach workers, focused on so-called "high impact locations" including Old Town Chinatown.
- Expanded behavioral health services for people on the street living with mental health and/or substance use disorders.
- A "significant expansion" of storage and hygiene services for people living on the street.
- Expanded funding for cleanup programs and trash removal.
- The creation of a "Street Services Coordination Center" to help connect navigation workers and first responders with direct shelter bed referral access.
The coordination between the City and County was a marked departure from recent disagreements on how to best address Portland's growing homelessness crisis. As Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury stated in announcing the plan:
“All of us here today see with clear eyes what’s been happening over the course of the 40 years that led us here: a fundamental breakdown in how we care for the most vulnerable people in our country. This represents a rare opportunity for us to come together, pool our resources and inject an immediate infusion into our system to address homelessness in our community.”
While many residents applauded the plan, it does raise some questions. One key question is about impact: with a combined homelessness budget that's already close to $150 million, how much will an additional $38 million move the needle? The number represents a 25% increase in funding.
Another key question is around innovation. With the exception of the Street Services Coordination Center, most of the new investment will go into the expansion of existing programs, many of which have either not proven to be effective or lack the data to prove their efficacy.
In a November 4th City budget hearing on the topic, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty also raised several questions about equity, noting that while some areas like Old Town Chinatown have been targeted for increased investment, many neighborhoods in East Portland and East Multnomah County feel forgotten despite the high numbers of camps in their neighborhoods.
The "Great Resignation" is also impacting many City and County contractors and their ability to fill positions that were already funded. This will make it difficult to ramp up the increased services any time soon. However local politicians remain optimistic. Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson stated:
"These are unprecedented times, and they need to be met with unprecedented action. The county rarely allocates funds mid-year, but the situation on our streets requires it. We are working urgently with our partners to address our homelessness crisis. We are investing in our mental health system, in hygiene and storage needs for our houseless neighbors, and in the cleanup of unsafe encampments. While these investments, like all investments, will need time to show results, we have focused on investments where we expect to have impacts in weeks, not years. I know people are frustrated, but the situation on our streets is not unique among West Coast cities. What we are doing now is prioritizing our tools, resources, and commitment to help those most in need as quickly as we can."
No doubt the results of these investments will be on the minds of voters next year. Vega Pederson, along with colleagues Commissioner Sharon Meieran and Commissioner Lori Stegman are all vying to stay in County government by running for Multnomah County Chair, a position that current Chair Deborah Kafoury is leaving due to term limits. They face competition from long-time homeless advocate Shannon Singleton.
City Commissioners Dan Ryan and Jo Ann Hardesty will also be up for re-election in 2022.
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