Clackamas County reversed course Wednesday on a plan to open a housing project to help people experiencing homelessness.
County commissioners had approved a “Project Turnkey” effort last month, on a 3-2 vote. Project Turnkey is a state-backed grant program administered by the Oregon Community Foundation, aimed at expanding housing capacity for people experiencing homelessness through purchasing sites that can be quickly turned into housing, such as old motels.
The idea was to turn the 110-unit Quality Inn located where Southeast Sunnyside Road crosses Interstate 205 into transitional housing for people experiencing homelessness. County Chair Tootie Smith was the decisive vote to approve the project, and became the decisive vote against it Wednesday morning, at a 15-minute special meeting.
“We have heard from the public that they wish to be engaged, that they needed more time,” Smith said in explaining her change of vote. ”Now you have it.”
Funding for the $15 million project was expected to come from the state “Project Turnkey” fund as well as other sources, such as an affordable housing bond approved by voters across the Portland region in 2018. According to a county policy brief in December, operational and property management costs would come from Clackamas County’s share of funds from the supportive housing services measure, passed by voters in 2020.
Smith announced three steps she wants to take instead of approving the transitional housing project.
In what she called an attempt to deal with the “scourge” of homelessness in the county southeast of Portland, Smith intends to launch what she called “homelessness causation and accountability summits” involving the public, as well as elected officials, nonprofit leaders and members of the faith and business communities. Smith also called for convening a blue-ribbon committee to “bring the best practices and solutions to the table” according to a release from the county following Wednesday’s vote. Smith also wants to send a referral to voters aiming to overturn Measure 110, which decriminalized small amounts of illegal drugs in Oregon.
A point-in-time homeless count conducted across Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties in January 2022 found 6,633 people experiencing homelessness in the region, including 597 in Clackamas County.
The rejected transitional housing project would have been located at an old Quality Inn close to where Southeast Sunnyside Road crosses Interstate 205, just a little south of Southeast Portland and Multnomah County.
Smith was joined in her rejection of the housing project Wednesday by commissioners Mark Shull and Ben West. All three mentioned what they perceived as lack of public support for the project as reason to pull the plug.
In his remarks at the special meeting Wednesday, West said he hopes the next steps will come up with “a solution for all Clackamas County.”
“The person struggling with addiction and homelessness in Molalla is just as needy and important as the person struggling in the metro area,” West said.
West advocated for an effort “the Clackamas way,” calling attempts to confront homelessness in other parts of the West Coast “an objective failure.” West pushed against priorities in western cities, such as the decriminalization of drugs and harm reduction. West also questioned the exclusive focus on the “housing first” model, the widely used approach to homelessness in which getting people into shelter is prioritized, rather than ensuring they have satisfied certain criteria beforehand, such as being drug-free.
“I believe this county wants to focus on recovery-oriented systems of care that have worked in other parts of North America,” West said.
Commissioner Martha Schrader voted to approve the hotel housing project in February and maintained that support Wednesday. Schrader acknowledged the opposition and the need for “repair work” to build support for the transitional housing. But she said it would have been possible based on the county’s track record of building and managing a similar effort, the Veterans Village, which she said also faced “significant pushback” before it opened in 2018.
“We took the risk anyway, and now we have an intentional community there, that is drug-free, with wraparound services, where the folks who served our country are getting the services they need — and frankly that they’ve earned — in order to move out of homelessness and to become productive members of society,” Schrader said.
Adding pressure on the county was a lawsuit filed earlier this month. The landlord for nearby McMenamins Sunnyside sued on March 10, arguing that a deed restriction prohibited a transitional housing project from being located at the Quality Inn site.