Politics

Portland, Multnomah County leaders unveil proposal to improve joint response to homelessness

By Alex Zielinski (OPB)
Dec. 7, 2023 12:50 a.m.

Both jurisdictions are set to meet Thursday to reflect on the draft contract for running the Joint Office of Homeless Services

In this video screenshot, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, left, and Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson present their proposed framework for extending the partnership between the city and the county in the Joint Office of Homeless Services through June 2027. The press conference was held Dec. 6, 2023 at the Multnomah County Commissioners Board Room.

In this video screenshot, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, left, and Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson present their proposed framework for extending the partnership between the city and the county in the Joint Office of Homeless Services through June 2027. The press conference was held Dec. 6, 2023 at the Multnomah County Commissioners Board Room.

Screenshot via YouTube / OPB

Two of the Portland region’s top politicians believe they have worked out a deal to help manage homeless services better, a move they hope can repair a soured relationship between Portland and Multnomah County.

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At a press conference Wednesday, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler joined Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson in announcing a plan to extend the contract between their governments to manage the Joint Office of Homeless Services until 2027.

“Today marks a new beginning and a resetting of the table for how the city of Portland and Multnomah County work together to address the number one issue facing our community,” Wheeler said. “That is, of course, homelessness.”

The contract proposal, which would need approval by both city and county commissioners before adoption, introduces new goals to measure the Joint Office’s success, three new oversight boards, and frequent progress reports.

The announcement follows months of negotiations between two leaders whose opinions on solutions to homelessness have diverged in the past. It also demonstrates a rare show of stability during a period of instability within Portland’s government. By the end of next year, Portland will transition to a new governance model with a much larger city council — a plan approved by voters in 2022.

“The proposal… turns the page on a relationship that has been fraught with misunderstanding and mistrust, and worst of all, a system that is not as effective as it should be,” Vega Pederson said.

Improving a working relationship fraught with mistrust

Multnomah County and the city of Portland established the Joint Office in 2016 to streamline local government’s response to homelessness. The office is jointly funded by the city and the county, and it also receives some federal and state grant dollars. Yet the county has taken the lead in governing the office and determining how its budget is spent, while the city acts as an advisory body. This setup has rankled city commissioners, who have criticized the county’s spending decisions for focusing more on housing than homeless shelter programs.

In May, several city commissioners threatened to vote against an annual contract extension with the county to run the Joint Office in protest. Instead, they agreed to extend the current contract until June 2024, allowing time to reassess the city’s relationship with the Joint Office in December.

Vega Pederson and Wheeler — and their staff — have spent months since working to rebuild that relationship. After a rocky start, staff say the two offices are now on the same page. The result is a proposed three-year contract that addresses some of the issues that have driven the public’s distrust and skepticism of the Joint Office for years.

Related: Portland leaders debating end of joint county homeless service agency

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The draft contract introduces a new steering committee, largely made up of local elected officials, which is responsible for setting the Joint Office’s strategic goals and measuring success. That committee’s work is informed by two additional advisory boards: an implementation committee composed mostly of city and county housing, health, and public safety department directors; and a community advisory committee including people who have experienced homelessness or who have worked in homeless services.

The Joint Office was originally overseen by a governing body, dubbed A Home For Everyone, which was led by both local elected officials and nonprofit leaders. That board dissolved in early 2022 and was replaced by smaller community groups — a move that added to local politicians’ mistrust of the system.

The proposal also includes something the Joint Office hasn’t relied on in the past: measurable goals. The contract aims to use various data sources to produce a rough estimate of the number of people in Multnomah County sleeping outside in January 2024. The Joint Office will then work to halve that number in two years — by January 2026. The agency will also aim to increase the amount of times people leave homeless shelters into permanent housing by 15% in that period of time.

To reach these goals, the county and the city will need to improve their data collection coordination between different government agencies and housing nonprofits to share in a public database.

Under the proposal, the Joint Office would need to provide quarterly progress reports to the city and the county — which must be publicly available.

In the past, the county and the city have clashed over budget decisions. This new contract requires the Joint Office to give both governmental bodies at least two months to review the agency’s annual budget before calling for a vote. Each body will vote on how their share of the budget will be spent.

Successes of Joint Office despite funding delays

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. There is no formal division of funds between the two governments, but it’s guaranteed that the county will be contributing more in the coming years due to its role overseeing a regional tax meant to fund homeless services. The county is expected to direct revenue from the supportive housing services tax into the Joint Office.

The Joint Office has been under scrutiny in the past year for taking too long to distribute those tax dollars. County leaders spent much of the year working to dole out unspent dollars and assess problems with the Joint Office’s inner workings. Despite funding delays, the Joint Office has been able to use that tax to effectively reduce the region’s homeless population. A November report found that 99% of people the agency moved into housing between July 2021 and July 2022 using revenue from the tax remained housed a year later.

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

City and county commissioners will each need to vote to approve this new contract, which would start in July 2024. Both governance bodies will meet Thursday to reflect on the proposal, before ultimately voting on the contract in the spring. Staff have expressed confidence that both the county and the city will approve the contract, despite some commissioners’ past misgivings.

If that doesn’t happen, the frayed relationship will once again be in the spotlight. In the event of a no vote, commissioners will need to craft a strategy for dividing shared homeless service programs between the two jurisdictions. That could splinter collaboration between mental health and addiction services, which the county manages, and housing programs, which the city traditionally oversees.

Wheeler, who is not running for reelection next year, said that would be a failure.

“We’re finally following individuals through the system and connecting them individually with what they need tailored to their needs,” Wheeler said. “And we’re measuring it all and we’re being clear about it. And we couldn’t do that without the county.”

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