PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran says the Joint Office of Homeless Services — a partnership between Multnomah County and the City of Portland — has no plan to address homelessness, citing a lack of coordination between the government agencies and lawmakers focusing on talking points rather than solutions to the crisis.
In late May, the City of Portland said it will extend its contract with Multnomah County to fund the Joint Office of Homeless Services, which aims to provide housing, shelter, health and job placement services for people facing homelessness.
The one-year contract extension comes after talk of splitting up the joint office. However, city leaders said they would give $43 million to the county, with strings attached — including guidelines in the contract for how that money would be spent and proof that homelessness is reduced.
Multnomah County runs the joint office while the City of Portland supplies the funding.
Commissioner Meieran is calling for the county and the city to come up with a coordinated plan to address homelessness and unspent funds that could be going toward homeless services.
“A lot of people would reasonably expect the Joint Office of Homeless Services to truly be a Joint Office of Homeless Services. In reality, the Joint Office of Homeless Services is a county department — the county chair oversees it, and the city just gives a bunch of money without any authority to the joint office,” Meieran said.
“So, these decisions being made are not prioritizing a lot of the city’s priorities and that’s been since its inception. So, there’s a contract that governs the joint office, don’t know why the city signed on to it in the first place, but that contract is up for renewal, it’s been pushed back a couple of times. But the city is rightfully angry because they’re paying the money but don’t have the authority,” Meieran said.
The commissioner says the county and the city need to work in unison on homelessness and says with $43 million on the line, the office has no plans in place.
“I wrote an op-ed a couple of months ago that highlighted the fact that there is no actual plan to address homelessness between Multnomah County and the city,” Meieran said.
“The joint office, if it was truly joint and coordinated, would be the entity that comes up with its plan. But because there’s this disconnect, it’s like all of these leaders are governing by press release. So, coming up with one random thing, another thing, but it doesn’t fit into a whole,” Meieran said.
“By coordinating, we can come up with an agreement of shared accountability, or shared responsibility and a shared plan for ending homelessness,” the commissioner stated. “There’s not been the interest or appetite of leadership, I would say, to address that.”
Meirean says the county should be supporting the city’s efforts to address homelessness but wants to see more collaboration between the county and city.
“I personally believe we should be supporting the city. There should be mutual support for a plan but we get caught up in these individual approaches – so, it’s Safe Rest Villages, urban camping, camping ban, Housing Multnomah Now – and these are all just sort of talking points that are not coordinated,” Meieran said.
Meieran, who lost to Jessica Vega Pederson for the county chair position in 2022 — says it is part of Vega Pederson’s role to develop and help implement a plan to address homelessness.
“Right now, it is up to the county chair — who is in charge of homelessness — and the mayor and the Portland Housing Bureau director to come together and reach consensus on a plan,” Meieran said.
According to the commissioner, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s homeless camping ban proposal, which he announced on May 25, is a political talking point and doesn’t involve her desired coordination with the county.
The potential changes to the city code come after the 2021 adoption of Oregon House Bill 3115, which requires cities to update camping ordinances by July 1, 2023 “to ensure they are objectively reasonable with respect to time, place, and manner restrictions on unsanctioned camping,” according to the mayor’s office.
Wheeler’s proposal would ban camping from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and would not allow camping near parks, schools or construction zones and states that campers cannot block home or business entry.
The ordinance requires written warnings before any penalty and that two documented warnings can lead to criminal penalties. After two prior warnings for not following the ordinance, campers can get a fine of up to $100 and/or imprisonment for up to 30 days.
If approved by Portland City Council, the ordinance will be phased in starting July 1, 2023.
“These are sort of talking point to get elected and not full on policies supporting a holistic plan. Meieran said. “When we don’t think holistically, we do a camping ban. Where are people going to go during the day? What are they going to suffer … what are we doing to help people so they don’t have to camp?”
She says a big part of the county’s homelessness crisis is behavioral health and addiction issues.
“A camping ban alone isn’t going to solve the issues,” Meieran said. “I don’t know where people think people are going to go. It’s not going to be jails. I honestly don’t know. That’s why we need to be getting together and thinking about the approach in general.”
As the city sits on an approximate $46 million in Metro Supportive Services taxes, the commissioner says it is “shameful” and unconscionable” that those funds are not going towards solutions to the homelessness crisis. She says it is up to Chair Vega-Pederson to get the money out the door.
“I have been discussing this, calling this out at our public board meetings for years, sitting next to my four colleagues on the board and not being able to get the attention. I had to resort to writing an op-ed to the public saying, ‘Hey, look, what are we doing?’ Still, no attention,” Meieran said.
For starters, Meieran says the joint office needs to measure the scope of how many people are facing homelessness in the county to get an idea of needed resources.
The latest Point in Time Count, conducted Jan. 25-31, in Multnomah County found that 6,297 people were considered homeless — a 21% increase from last year — with 3,944 of them unsheltered, 1,821 in shelter and 532 in transitional housing.
In Meieran’s view, the federally-required survey likely doesn’t reflect the extent of how many homeless people there are in the county.
Meieran says within six months, Multnomah County could deploy teams to understand the needs of the its homeless population then invest in those identified needs.
“It’s the chair’s responsibility to come up with a plan and address it and it’s not an excuse to say we have a new Joint Office of Homeless Services director and I’ve directed him to come up with a plan. You don’t blame your subordinates,” Meieran said.
During her interview on Eye on Northwest Politics in March, Vega Pederson said she was “optimistic” about addressing homelessness and emphasized the importance of the county and the city partnering for the JOHS “to really have the system work better together between investments the city was already making, and the county was already making.”
“I came into this office knowing that housing and homelessness was going to be the number one priority that I wanted to work on, and I was committed to working in partnership with the city, with metro, with the state in addressing the issue,” Vega Pederson said.
Meanwhile, Meieran’s calls to address the homeless crisis come as the Portland Business Alliance wrote a letter to Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson, Washington County Chair Kathryn Harrington and Clackamas County Chair Tootie Smith on May 31 — urging the leaders to increase homelessness outreach pay to retain workers. PBA also called for a more streamlined process to get funding into the hands of homeless services rather than having the funds be caught in red tape.