Multnomah County homeless service fund is successfully moving people off the street, report finds

By Alex Zielinski (OPB)
Nov. 11, 2023 2 p.m.

A new report by Joint Office of Homeless Services offers the rare bit of good news for the state’s most populous county, which has struggled mightily to spend money on homeless services.

Despite funding backlogs and staffing problems, Multnomah County’s tax-funded homeless service program is surpassing key expectations in its second year of operation.

A new report found that 99% of people the county moved into permanent supportive housing between July 2021 and July 2022 using revenue from the voter-approved fund remained housed a year later. Only five of the 532 people housed through this system in that time returned to homelessness.

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This exceeds the supportive housing tax program’s goal of ensuring that 85% percent of all people housed through the program stay housed a year later. This is only one way that the fund has surpassed expectations, according to the annual report released this week by the Joint Office of Homeless Services, a department shared by Portland and Multnomah County. The report spans the 2022-2023 fiscal year, which ended in July.

The homeless service tax connected 2,067 households at risk of eviction with rent assistance, keeping them from entering homelessness. That’s more than twice the county’s goal of preventing 800 households from eviction in the past fiscal year. The program also surpassed its mission of establishing 400 shelter beds in a year, sustaining 460 beds across the county.

FILE: The Peninsula Crossing Safe Rest Village is a temporary housing shelter located in North Portland, opened in May 2023. The Portland Housing Bureau site features 60 sleeping units, with case management, and on-site access to mental and behavioral health services.

FILE: The Peninsula Crossing Safe Rest Village is a temporary housing shelter located in North Portland, opened in May 2023. The Portland Housing Bureau site features 60 sleeping units, with case management, and on-site access to mental and behavioral health services.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

The report delivers a rare win to the county’s homeless service program in a year highlighted by harsh criticism from local and state leaders for program delays.

“This report reminds us that we know what works,” Dan Field, director of the Joint Office, told OPB. “Taxpayers have trusted us with a lot of money. Now we know that our strategy is the right one.”

The report is the most recent examination of the tax, which is collected by Metro and distributed between Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties. All counties experienced success in keeping people housed in its second year: Washington County saw a 98% housing retention rate while Clackamas County saw 95% of the people it helped house remain in housing a year later.

But Multnomah county didn’t achieve every goal it set out for in the fiscal year.

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In all, the county was able to house 806 households — or 1,318 people total — during the past fiscal year, through a combination of permanent supportive housing and rapid rehousing programs. Permanent supportive housing offers tenants specialized services, like job training or health treatment, to ensure they stay housed, while rapid rehousing places people in housing with little extra support.

Although the county moved slightly more people into housing in its second year than its first, it still fell short of its annual goal of moving 1,345 households into stable housing.

Along with moving people experiencing homelessness into stable housing, the homeless services tax funds the creation of new supportive housing apartments. In the past fiscal year, Multnomah County set out to add 994 new apartment units to its supportive housing supply. It only created 612. The county had also aimed to increase the capacity of culturally specific shelters by 10% over the past year. It failed to add any culturally specific shelter beds during this time.

According to Field, much of those shortfalls are due to already well-known problems with the new program. The tax on residents and companies with high earnings delivered Multnomah County just over $90 million in revenue to spend in the past fiscal year. Yet the county ended the year with about $42 million of those dollars unspent.

At the time, county officials said this was due to staff retention issues at nonprofits that the county contracts with to distribute the money. Nonprofit leaders — and surveyed staff — said this was likely due to low wages and poor benefits. Field said this continues to hamper the county’s housing goals.

“We’ve heard it for years from our providers: as Portland’s housing becomes more expensive, and as inflation drives up other costs, they aren’t able to pay their staff a living wage for the incredibly important work they do in our community,” Field wrote in the report. “Without a strong provider workforce, we will struggle to deliver on the full promise of this measure.”

An August survey conducted by the Joint Office found that more than half of employees who work for nonprofits that contract with the county said they were likely to look for a new job within a year. In September, the County Board of Commissioners sent $10 million in underspent tax dollars to nonprofit providers to address their staff capacity issues. Those funds should reach nonprofits by the end of the year, according to Field.

The report also pointed to problems with the county’s contract processing system as a barrier to reaching its annual housing goals.

Yet Field said he is hopeful that the program can succeed despite these early hurdles.

“We know supportive housing is working, we know rapid rehousing is working,” Field said. “The question is, ‘How do we increase the [number of housing units] quickly?’ I think we can achieve that.”

The homeless services tax will expire in 2031 if not renewed, but it’s set to bring in millions more than expected during that time. A recent revenue forecast by Metro, the government that oversees the regional tax, estimated that the tax is projected to collect $1 billion more than anticipated before it expires.

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