Multnomah County’s failure to swiftly move homeless people into housing has a cost. Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek announced Wednesday that she’s retracting state dollars promised to the state’s most populous county to address homelessness.
In March, Kotek signed a $200 million funding package, called the Emergency Homelessness Response, that she said would help move 1,200 Oregonians without shelter into housing and create 600 new shelter beds by January 10, 2024. Nearly $80 million of those dollars were distributed across the states’ most populous counties in April, with the largest portion, $18.2 million, going directly to Multnomah County.
Kotek has decided to take back $2.7 million of those funds and redistribute them to six other counties.
“We are at a key decision point in order to reach these goals,” said Elisabeth Shepard, a spokesperson for Kotek. She noted that Multnomah County has far more resources than other Oregon communities to address the homelessness crisis.
“Given this, the state can be nimble in how the Emergency Homelessness Response dollars are allocated to make the greatest possible progress towards the state’s overall rehousing goal,” Shepard said.
The funds will be shared with Clackamas, Marion, Polk, Deschutes, Jefferson and Crook counties with the intent to house 89 additional unsheltered households.
Counties that received these emergency funds earlier this year were instructed to create Multi-Agency Coordinating groups, or MAC groups, to oversee how the dollars are distributed. Multnomah County’s MAC, which includes elected officials, shelter developers and landlord associations, proposed using the state money to rehouse 275 households and create around 140 shelter beds.
Kotek first aired concerns with how Multnomah County and Portland officials were planning on spending state dollars on homelessness in April. She expressed frustration with the vagueness of the city and county’s plan, and pressed for details.
Some of the $18.2 million has already been spent. In August, Portland City Council allocated $6.6 million to purchase and operate 140 sleeping pods at the city’s first mass outdoor shelter in Southeast Portland. The Joint Office of Homeless Services, which is overseen by Multnomah County, has spent just under $4 million on housing placement programs. It’s not clear how many people have been rehoused through these programs.
Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson said this funding cut will “not at all” impact the county’s response to homelessness.
“The Governor and I both recognize that Multnomah County has more resources than other parts of the state,” Vega Pederson told OPB. “Our investments and goals – and the impacts they will have on our Homelessness Response System and our ability to allocate targeted resources to this crisis – will not change.”
Vega Pederson said she had already considered returning some of the money to the state before Wednesday’s announcement.
That’s mostly due to the county’s unprecedented influx of public funding meant to address homelessness – and its challenges getting those dollars out the door.
In May, Multnomah County announced that it hadn’t spent more than $40 million generated from a new regional tax meant to support homeless programs. County officials blamed this slowdown on low wages and staffing shortages at the nonprofits they contract with to distribute the funds – and said the issue would be quickly remedied. Multnomah County released a plan earlier this month on how it would use that unspent money.
The county is also sitting on $50 million of additional unexpected revenue from the region’s supportive housing services tax and $12 million leftover from the federal government’s American Rescue Plan. County commissioners will discuss how to spend this historic amount of excess funding on homeless prevention programs this week.
The county’s delays in getting dollars to homeless solutions has increasingly frustrated Portland City Council, a body that provides some oversight to the Joint Office of Homeless Services. City commissioners are scheduled to meet with county commissioners Friday to discuss the Joint Office’s effectiveness. Several city officials, including Mayor Ted Wheeler, have suggested severing ties with the county over its response to homelessness due to funding delays and disagreements.
In a statement sent to OPB, Wheeler said he was “very concerned” about this funding cut and hopes to discuss it in more detail Friday.
Kotek’s announcement follows news of her office pledging an additional $26 million in homeless response funds to 26 rural Oregon counties. And, while she may be trimming Multnomah County’s share, Kotek hasn’t given up on local governments’ efforts to reduce homelessness.
“She will continue to partner with the region towards better outcomes,” Shepard said.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to say Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek is taking back $2.7 million in homelessness response funds from Multnomah County. A previous version included a rounding error.