Facing an unexpected — and unprecedented — surge of tax dollars, Multnomah County commissioners approved a plan 4-1 Thursday to address some of the gaps in the region’s response to homelessness. The vote exposed a clear rift within the commission, culminating in a tense exchange between Multnomah Chair Jessica Vega Pederson and Commissioner Sharon Meieran.
The $62 million in revenue will go toward emergency homeless shelters, outdoor villages, drug detox centers, day shelters, and housing reserved for people exiting substance abuse treatment recovery programs.
“When I ran for this office, it was to solve big tough problems,” said Vega Pederson, who drafted the spending plan. “There has been no bigger or tougher problem than digging in as hard as we can to turn the tide on the dual crises of homelessness and substance abuse in our communities. There is a time to be resolute and that time is now.”
The funding package comes from an unexpected $50 million in additional revenue from the regional supporting housing services tax. Those dollars come from a tax on high-income earners in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties and are meant to fund programs that help move people experiencing homelessness into permanent housing — and supply social services to ensure they remain housed.
Metro, the regional government agency that oversees this tax, alerted the county in August of this extra money. Earlier this month, the county also learned it had $12 million in unused federal American Rescue Plan Act money.
County commissioners have spent the past month debating how to best spend that pot of money — a process that’s pitted costly projects against one another. The result is a cobbled-together list of programs and projects that commissioners believe can help improve the county’s ability to smoothly move people out of homelessness and into permanent housing.
“When I started this conversation weeks ago, my criterion was, ‘What can we do with that money in the most expeditious manner that will result in immediate shelter, immediate services for people?’” said Commissioner Lori Stegmann, who represents east Portland, Gresham, Troutdale and other communities in east Multnomah County. “And I believe that this package does just that.”
The plan creates 175 shelter beds for adults, 30 for families with children, and 10 for young adults. Multnomah County currently has around 2,000 shelter beds open to the public. The county board also agreed to steer nearly $500,000 toward organizations set to open outdoor pod villages for people leaving homelessness.
The city of Portland is one of the main recipients of county dollars. The board sent $16 million toward the city’s temporary alternative shelter sites, or TASS, program. As of now, the city has only opened one of the large-scale outdoor shelters in Southeast Portland, which can house up to 180 people. The new funding will make it possible for the city to open two more.
While all commissioners supported funding the city’s shelters, some raised concerns about how long it may take for that money to be used, since the city has yet to find property for the two shelters.
“Our single biggest investment is in services that aren’t planned to be delivered in this fiscal year,” said Commissioner Susheela Jayapal, who represents North Portland. “It will just sit there.”
Skyler Brocker-Knapp, a policy advisor for Mayor Ted Wheeler, assured commissioners that the city is working hard to get the shelters up and running swiftly. But she did not offer a date by which they will be open.
Perhaps the largest point of contention for commissioners, however, was where to spend money on drug and alcohol abuse treatment programs.
The proposed spending plan pledges $6.8 million to create a “24/7 stabilization center,” a residential space with 20 beds for people at risk of homelessness to stay after leaving a drug detox program. It’s unknown how long people would be allowed to stay at this facility. According to county staff, eight beds would be reserved for intoxicated people who are picked up by police or other providers and in need of sobering up in a safe environment.
Commissioner Sharon Meieran, a practicing emergency medicine doctor who represents Portland’s westside and inner southeast neighborhoods, believed the county should be investing more resources into a higher capacity drop-off sobering center. She accused staff in the county’s behavioral health and substance abuse treatment departments of rushing to pull together this proposal without actually understanding the issue.
“It’s like someone opened a Cliffs Notes on behavioral health to write an essay at the last minute because it was overdue and hoped the teacher wouldn’t notice that,” Meieran said. “I am disgusted by this proposal.”
Meieran, who cast the sole vote against the budget package, also criticized her board colleagues for making funding decisions driven, she said, by politics and re-election concerns. Meieran directed most of her comments at Vega Pederson, who she routinely criticized for not appearing to take the region’s homeless crisis seriously. Meieran has regularly butted heads with Vega Pederson since Vega Pederson beat her in the board chair race and took office in January.
Vega Pederson pointedly told Meieran that her comments about county staff and commissioners were “out of line.”
“You are never allowed to impugn the motives of your colleagues,” she said. “And I’m not going to stand for it here.”
Other commissioners, including Commissioner Julia Brim-Edwards and Stegmann, expressed concern about not funding a larger drop-off center to replace Portland’s only sobering and detox center, which shuttered in 2019.
“I would like to have an investment now that is more substantive, that is more than eight sobering beds, but it’s a start,” said Brim-Edwards, who represents most of Southeast Portland.
Brim-Edwards expressed strong support for the plan’s $3 million reserved for expanding shelters that operate during the daytime. Day shelter providers have raised alarm over Portland’s yet-to-be-enforced ban on daytime camping in public spaces, as they predict it will drive a surge in demand to their limited services.
“[That funding] is especially important as the city’s new daytime campaign restrictions are implemented,” Brim-Edwards said. “We need alternatives to libraries, businesses, parks, and other public spaces becoming de facto service centers, which are not equipped or appropriate for providing basic daytime services.”
The funding package also includes money for eviction defense and rent assistance for people at risk of homelessness, and funds to support supportive housing programs for people in recovery. Several people who operate these types of programs applauded the investment at the Thursday meeting.
The spending plan also garnered support from Andy Mendenhall, the CEO of Portland nonprofit Central City Concern, which operates recovery housing and homeless service programs.
“This is an extensive package of different forms of stabilization programming that’s really important,” Mendenhall said. “Is it sufficient to meet the needs of the community fully? It’s not. But this is an exceptionally good start.”
This is the second batch of homeless services dollars the county has been asked to distribute this year. Multnomah County ended the fiscal year in June with $42 million of supportive housing tax dollars unspent. At the time, county officials said they were unable to distribute the funds due to low wages and staffing shortages at the nonprofits they contract with. Facing public outrage — and clear orders from Metro leadership — the county board pledged to swiftly get those unspent dollars out the door. Paired with $16 million in tax revenue reserves, the county had a total of $58 million to spend on housing programs.
In June, the county put $40 million of that revenue toward homeless prevention programs within its annual budget, and in early September, the board sent the remaining $18 million to a number of rent assistance and shelter programs, including money to keep homeless shelter Bybee Lakes Hope Center open. Thursday’s funding package gives an additional $1.25 million to Bybee Lakes.
And there’s another bucket of money on the horizon: In November, Metro will release a financial estimate of how much additional tax revenue the county should expect in the coming year. Several commissioners pointed to that potential extra funding at Thursday’s meeting, suggesting that it could go further to fill gaps in the region’s homeless service network. Those undetermined additional funds won’t be available until next summer.
The county’s homeless population on a given night is estimated to be more than 6,200.
Most commissioners expressed a hopeful outlook for the approved funding plan in the face of the region’s expansive homeless crisis.
“I know many of us, we compromise with one another,” Stegmann said. “We didn’t all get everything that we wanted, but it will ultimately do the most good for the most people.”