The agency that oversees Multnomah County’s homelessness response is at risk of losing key support from one of its founding members: the city of Portland.
In 2016, Multnomah County and the city of Portland established the Joint Office of Homeless Services to streamline local government’s response to homelessness. As the name suggests, the office is jointly funded by the city and county, and it also receives some federal and state grant dollars.
In the past fiscal year, the city of Portland contributed $45.5 million to the office’s budget, while the county gave $59.8 million. Yet because of the structure of the program, the county takes the lead in governing the office and determining how its budget is spent. The city acts as an advisory body.
Portland City Council members have bemoaned this setup for years, seeking more control over how its money is spent. Now some city commissioners are threatening to vote against an annual contract extension with the county to run the Joint Office in protest.
“The status quo is not sustainable,” Commissioner Rene Gonzalez said at a Wednesday council meeting. “I will not support an extension of this agreement without substantial rework to budget and governance. The outcomes on our street are not where we want them to be.”
The tension between the city and county is rooted in officials’ differing views of solving homelessness. While city leaders have historically pushed for the Joint Office to operate and open more homeless shelters, county leaders have advocated more for creating affordable housing and stabilizing rents for low-income tenants at risk of homelessness.
The city has also criticized the Joint Office’s trend of underspending public dollars, especially money from the regional tax that funds supportive housing services. In its latest quarterly report, the office reported spending just half of the allocated $36 million it received from Metro, the regional government that oversees the housing services tax.
Members of City Council say the Joint Office’s oversight structure leaves them out of critical decisions, especially as Portlanders demand action on homelessness from city leaders.
“I just do not understand why [the way that] city dollars are allocated is something we have to negotiate over,” said Commissioner MIngus Mapps. “I don’t think we would do this in any other space.”
Mapps said he also plans to vote against the contract extension.
Portland City Council was poised to vote Wednesday. Mayor Ted Wheeler chose to instead delay the vote until next week, allowing more time to hash out a contract that’s agreeable to all city commissioners.
The current contract does include several new updates meant to strengthen the city’s role in the agreement. The document requires that the city reassess the “vitality and sustainability” of its relationship with the Joint Office in December 2023, to determine if the city should continue or dissolve its contract in the following fiscal year, which begins in July 2024. It also requires that Multnomah County officials send their annual Joint Office budget proposal to the city for feedback before the county commission passes its budget.
Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson said she understands the city’s drive to update the terms of the contract.
“I strongly share the city’s desire for more accountability, transparency, and frankly better outcomes from the Joint Office,” Vega Pederson said in an email to OPB. “We will continue to work with the city to make the [contract] work, but we are committed to getting this short term extension right and to the success of our longer term partnership.”
Since Vega Pederson entered office in January, Mayor Ted Wheeler has lobbied her to use Joint Office dollars to run the city’s planned network of large outdoor homeless encampments. Earlier this week, Vega Pederson agreed to give an undisclosed amount of excess county budget dollars to the city to help with the camps.
City commissioners expressed optimism Wednesday because both the county and the Joint Office are under new leadership. Disagreement on how homelessness money should be spent was on regular display in tense conversations between previous county Chair Deborah Kafoury and Wheeler. At the start of the year, Kafoury was replaced by Vega Pederson, who has expressed interest in working more collaboratively with the city. Months after entering office, Vega Pederson appointed former health care executive Dan Field to serve as the newest director of the Joint Office. Wheeler said he also assisted in the hiring process.
“I support the extension of the contract only due to the new leadership of County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson and Joint Office Director Dan Field,” Commissioner Dan Ryan said. “I’m hopeful that the county will be the thought partners that the city needs.”
Mayor Wheeler also signaled his support for the contract, noting that it hinged on Vega Pederson’s promise to give county budget dollars to the encampment program. Commissioner Carmen Rubio said she will also vote in favor of a contract extension next week. If three commissioners vote to approve the contract next Wednesday, it will be adopted.
Yet Mapps and Gonzalez’s shared discomfort with the agreement shows the conversation is far from over.
“It is past time that the city of Portland and Multnomah County sign a contract that clearly articulates the parts of the houselessness crisis that are a city responsibility, [the parts] that are a county responsibility, and [the parts] that are a shared responsibility,” Mapps said. “Unfortunately the contract we are asked to renew does not do that. This arrangement is unacceptable.”