Multnomah County promised to expedite $3M to homeless day shelters last fall, but hasn’t delivered

By Alex Zielinski (OPB)
March 6, 2024 11:45 p.m. Updated: March 7, 2024 2:02 a.m.

County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson pledged urgency in September. Nonprofit shelter providers are still waiting.

People wait in line for food at Blanchet House in Portland, a non profit that provides free meals to anyone who needs it.

FILE - People wait in line for food at Blanchet House in Portland, a nonprofit that provides free meals to anyone who needs it.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Nearly six months ago, Multnomah County leaders voted to direct $3 million to the region’s top homeless day shelters. The idea was to prepare these facilities for Portland’s looming daytime camping ban, which was expected to trigger a surge in demand at day shelters.


But, despite a special order by County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson to speed up the process, the money is still sitting in county coffers.

“We’ve been told that the funding is held up in the county’s fiscal office and that there’s no expected timeline,” said Katie O’Brien, the executive director of Rose Haven, a nonprofit daytime shelter for women, children and non-binary people experiencing homelessness. “We’re seeing more new guests every day, our need is growing. It feels like our sense of urgency is different from the county’s definition.”

Both Rose Haven and Blanchet House, another day shelter nonprofit, were each promised $350,000 in county funds to expand their services. The county also committed $830,000 to the Equi Institute, a Portland nonprofit that provides health services to LGBTQ+ people, to open the region’s first day shelter for LGBTQ+ Portlanders experiencing homelessness.

Related: Momentum builds in major homelessness case from Oregon headed to US Supreme Court

This is just the latest instance of Multnomah County struggling to spend tax dollars quickly enough to stem the region’s growing homelessness crisis — despite knowing exactly what’s causing the delays.

The shelters are required to spend the money by the end of June, but they’re waiting on a contract from the county to receive any funds. Multnomah County staff say that these contracts are mere steps away from approval by upper management.

The Equi Institute plans to use the money to buy a building for a new shelter and cover operating costs.

“We’re still looking for a building right now,” said Katie Cox, executive director of the Equi Institute. “But once we find one, we’ll need those funds to be available.”

Slow contracting process

The county’s contracting system has stymied providers for years.

When nonprofits sign a contract with the county to receive any funding, they don’t immediately get the money. Contractors are usually reimbursed after they complete the work agreed upon in a contract, creating a scenario where organizations may be operating in the red until the agreed-upon work is completed. This process, and the glacial pace of inking a contract, has kept some nonprofits from working with the county altogether.

None of the three organizations have received county funding in the past, partially because of this issue.

Related: Low wages and staffing shortages plague rollout of Portland-area supportive housing tax dollars

O’Brien said that she’s already spent $350,000 to expand the shelter and serve more visitors, and is now just counting on the county’s reimbursement to keep the nonprofit financially sound.

“We’re grateful they value us and trust us to provide services to the community,” O’Brien said. “But trust needs to go both ways.”

FILE - Chef Shannon Chasteen prepares for food service on May 2, 2022, at Blanchet House.

FILE - Chef Shannon Chasteen prepares for food service on May 2, 2022, at Blanchet House.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB


She blames the bureaucracy, not the politicians.

County leaders are aware of their accounting problems. Last August, a county audit pointed specifically to the county’s contracting process as a major flaw in its ability to support homeless service providers. Leaders also say that contracting is one of the key issues that hinder the county’s ability to swiftly distribute Metro Supportive Housing Services tax dollars, which pays for programs that support people who are unsheltered or at risk of homelessness.

The county ended the 2023 fiscal year in June with $42 million of its supportive housing tax dollars unspent.

Promise of urgency

County officials say this is due to contracting issues, staffing shortages at the nonprofits they work with, and the challenge of managing a much larger pool of cash than initially expected.

In 2023, the county collected $50 million in additional, unanticipated revenue from the supportive housing tax. In September, county commissioners voted to distribute this pot of money to several regional homeless service programs. That included more than $3 million sent to daytime homeless shelters. Half of those dollars were set aside from Blanchet House, Rose Haven, and the Equi Institute. The rest went toward plans to open a new county-owned shelter in North Portland, and to expand several programs the county already funds.

The money was approved at a critical time — months after Portland City Council adopted a policy to prohibit camping on all public property between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. This proposal drew immediate concerns from leaders at the few shelters in the city that operate during the day, including Rose Haven and Blanchet House. Those providers said they didn’t have enough capacity to accommodate an expected surge in the number of people seeking a place to rest during the day under the new policy.

County commissioners explicitly pointed to this need in their funding vote. Chair Vega Pederson, acknowledging the slow pace of the county’s funding process, went even further to underscore the urgency. A month after the county vote, she used her executive power to fast-track funding to those shelters under an emergency exemption.

In a press release sent at the time, Vega Pederson said she was making the decision to ensure the investments “reach the people who need them the most right now.”

“I’ve directed each division to bring urgency to the contracting and distribution process,” she said, “and proactively and productively clear hurdles to help providers reach the outcomes we know are possible.”

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

Denis Theriault, a Multnomah County spokesperson, said the county is moving much more swiftly than usual due to Vega Pederson’s actions. Under her order, the process skips two time-consuming administrative steps, shaving off roughly four months of extra work.

He said the county is on track to get funding out the door by the end of the fiscal year in June.

Several other programs that were promised funding by the county in September have received the money. These include nonprofits that already have contracts with the county, like Transition Projects, which has used the extra funding to extend the hours of a homeless resource center in the Bud Clark Commons, an apartment complex in Portland’s Old Town serving people who have experienced homelessness. The funding has also helped the nonprofit Trash for Peace open a daytime storage program for people experiencing homelessness.

Uncertain funding future

The urgency around receiving those funds has decreased slightly due to a delay in the city’s ability to enforce the camping ban. The policy, which was expected to go into effect in November, has been put on hold as a lawsuit against the policy plays out in court.

Yet the need continues to grow. According to Blanchet House Executive Director Scott Kerman, the shelter has already served 25% more meals to people in 2024 compared to this time last year. Kerman attributed that to data showing that the region’s unsheltered homeless population increased in 2023.

Kerman said he’s confident that his organization will receive the funds promised in September. But he’s less certain about the possibility of receiving more money from the county as the homelessness crisis continues to grow — and as the camping ban moves through the courts. He’s now asking the county to include funding for Blanchet House in its annual budget, which is finalized in June.

“It’s hard to implement lasting changes and improvements without assurances that critical funding will be there,” said Kerman.

O’Brien is also interested in longer-term funding. But she said the contract delays may change how she thinks about asking for funds in the future.

“It gives me pause, especially if I want to do something bigger in the future, to expand,” she said. “If we ask the county to pay for that, I don’t know if we can trust that’s going to come.”