Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler plans to use his executive powers to create a new homeless service hub within the city government, streamlining the work of various departments that interact with people living outside.
Wheeler said Wednesday the structural change, which has been in the works since last fall, is an an attempt to break down rigid silos when it comes to addressing unsheltered homelessness. He compared the city’s complicated bureaucracy to a “wiring map stuck to the back of an old refrigerator.”
“Some of you might say, well this is common sense isn’t this already happening?” he said at a press conference Wednesday. “And the answer sadly is no, or at least not at the scale it should be happening.”
The mayor will use his emergency powers to enact a Street Services Coordination Center, overseen by Community Safety Director Mike Myers, a former Portland fire chief and emergency management director. It’s the latest in what he’s promised will be a series of executive orders addressing the city’s homelessness crisis.
“Unsheltered houselessness has continued to grow in Portland despite large investments in current service systems,” the draft proposal reads. “Given the urgent need to maximize results from limited public resources and personnel, it is critical that the City of Portland and Multnomah County pull its decentralized programs and services into a collaborative team under a coordinated command structure.”
Most city bureaus now touch the lives of people living on the street in some form. But the work is decentralized, with staff struggling to coordinate as they report to different bureaus heads and different city commissioners. Staff with the city’s Impact Reduction Program, housed in the Office of Management & Finance, are responsible for coordinating so-called “sweeps” of homeless camps. First responders with the fire bureau respond to a rising number of fires at campsites as residents try to stay warm. Rangers with the park bureau regularly interact with people sleeping in public parks and surrounding areas.
Wheeler’s plan appears to be an attempt to break down the city’s silos when it comes to addressing unsheltered homelessness. According to the draft, city staff whose work brings them into contact with people living on the streets will now report to the coordination center for that aspect of their jobs. For the parts of their job unrelated to homelessness, they will continue to report to their usual boss. (Under Portland’s unique commission form of government, elected City Council members serve as both legislators, voting on policy, and administrators. Each oversees their own unique portfolio of city agencies.)
This executive order would place homeless response more squarely under the mayor. According to a draft organization chart, Myers will continue to report to the mayor and oversee Nata Takara, a policy advisor with the community safety division who will now serve as the incident commander. Takara will oversee staff from Portland Fire & Rescue, the parks bureau, the transportation bureau, the police bureau’s Neighborhood Response Teams, and the Impact Reduction Team, according to the chart. Council offices have been briefed on the order.
Wheeler said he plans to have the hub operational by this summer.
The plan effectively means the four city commissioners will be losing some of their oversight powers when it comes to how their bureaus interact with people living on the street. Both Myers and the mayor said they’ve consulted with council staff and commissioners and have heard few objections.
“If this was a major fire, if this was an earthquake or we had a heat wave, we would recognize groups to do work, and so this is not something new for the commissioners,” Myers said. “I feel like we have a very good comfort level with the commissioners at this point.”
OPB reached out to the four other council members for comment. Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty’s office declined to comment. Commissioner Mingus Mapps said he “strongly supports” the plan.
“It is a departure from the ‘either housing first or street anarchy approach,’ which is a false choice. Portland needs a spectrum of shelter and behavioral health options to serve as a safety net so that rock bottom is never a tent on our streets,” Mapps said in a written statement. “The City of Portland needs to have clear rules about street behavior and urban camping, and they need consistent enforcement.”
Staff with the coordination center will partner with the Joint Office of Homeless Services, the agency run by both Portland and Multnomah County that was created to provide a more coordinated response to homelessness. The Joint Office announced a change of leadership on Tuesday with Director Marc Jolin stepping down and Shannon Singleton, like Jolin a former head of the nonprofit service agency JOIN, filling in while the county searches for a permanent director.
First responders working with the hub will focus on referring people who are living in “high impact encampments” and in their vehicles to shelters. Working under the centralized response unit, staff will be able to more easily refer the people they encounter experiencing homelessness to shelters, behavioral health centers, and substance abuse treatment centers, per the proposal. They will also make referrals to the larger outdoor villages being spearheaded by Commissioner Dan Ryan once they open as well as the existing shelters and hotel rooms.
Seraphie Allen, the mayor’s policy director and the architect behind the restructuring, said Wednesday the proposal will not change the number of encampments swept by the city. Wheeler said the focus is on giving people living on the streets options to quickly move into shelter. For the first time, he said, the city will know on a daily basis how many shelter beds are available and where they are located.
“The streets services coordinate center’s charge is to quickly get real offers of shelters, transportation and services to people living on the streets, in their vehicles and in campsites through new and existing resources and staff,” he said.
The emergency order will be the third in two months that the mayor issued related to homelessness. On Feb. 4, Wheeler barred people from setting up tents near busy roadways and, last week, he signed an order to expedite the process for siting safe rest villages.
Asked how many emergency orders he plans to issue, Wheeler responded “as many as necessary.”