PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler announced a new emergency declaration Wednesday that he believes will better organize the city’s resources to improve its services to the homeless.
His declaration authorizes the creation of the Street Services Coordination Center, which he says will be responsible for quickly getting offers of shelter, transportation and services to people living on the streets in Portland.
Using the emergency declaration, Wheeler reorganized the way city bureaus and resources operate in a way that he says will streamline the process of connecting homeless individuals with shelters.
According to Wheeler, Portland’s commission form of government does not make it easy to coordinate efforts. He said bureaus have been working on homeless-related issues within their own “silos” without communicating, which often results in them competing against one another.
“We’ve not yet done our best work to address the needs of unsheltered homeless Portlanders,” Wheeler said, showing a chart of the city’s current structure for addressing unsheltered homelessness. “This is a great example of the mess of well-intentioned, systemic, cross-bureau spaghetti and it is unnecessarily wasteful of our staff’s time, slow to get results on the ground, and it’s very expensive.”
This is the third homeless-related emergency declaration Wheeler has made in the last few weeks. The creation of the Street Services Coordination Center establishes several new resources and practices within the city.
First, Wheeler said city officials will know on a daily basis how many shelter beds are open and where they are. Second, the city will increase its navigation team members from five to 25 to meet more homeless Portlanders in their camps.
The declaration also allows navigation outreach workers to make real-time offers to connect people with shelter space. If the resources are approved by the city council in April, navigation teams will be able to call for a ride to transport people and their belongings directly to a shelter, the mayor said.
“Ultimately, even though we are in a form of government, where as mayor I only have one vote out of five. People don’t know that they really don’t care,” Wheeler said. “The bottom line is they know I’m the mayor and they do hold me accountable. And that’s fine. What I see this as being is not only a more effective way to deliver services to people on the streets by overcoming some of the silo influence of our commission form of government get 29 bureaus.”
He said the coordination center will bring more than 20 local agencies, bureaus and departments together that support unsheltered Portlanders. It will be led by Portland’s Community Safety Transition Director Mike Myers.
Nate Takara, another member of the Community Safety Transition Team, will serve as the startup incident commander and will report to Myers.
“My goal is that once this operation is up and running and we add the necessary services capacity, so that someone experiencing homelessness is offered a hand up instead of a ‘move over,’” Wheeler said.
Myers also spoke at the news conference Wednesday saying the mayor’s emergency declaration is no different than what would occur during a natural disaster emergency, like a fire or earthquake. He said the mayor would reorganize groups to do the necessary work.
According to the charts Wheeler displayed at his news conference, the new Street Services Coordination Center Incident Command would oversee the Impact Reduction Team, the Portland Police Bureau Neighborhood Response Teams, the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s parking enforcement, Portland park rangers, and Portland Fire and Rescue, rather than each of these operating under their respective city commissioner.
Myers said he and the mayor have been working with commissioners and he feels the program has a “very good comfort level with the commissioners at this point.”
When asked for an example of how this new program would streamline addressing a homeless situation, Myers gave an example of how sometimes Portland park rangers will move a homeless person’s vehicle from a park and it will then transition to the street, where PBOT will contact the owner and ask them to relocate it. He said sometimes the vehicle then ends up back in the park, and continues to be shuffled around, without the two bureaus working together to find a real solution.
He said under the new structure, representatives from each bureau will be in a room together every day communicating and deciding what actions to take.
He also said the city will have a close relationship with the county and will have a daily phone call with county homeless officials to coordinate their efforts.
“They’re not operating by themselves, isolated in their bureaus, not talking to each other. We’re bringing them together at the same table,” Myers said.
When asked why something like this wasn’t done sooner, Wheeler said COVID-19 restrictions over the last two years have limited the city’s approach to addressing homelessness. He said now that COVID appears to be less of a threat, he is taking an opportunity to get resources to more camps and hopefully connect more people with shelters.
Wheeler said this strategy has been in the works since the fall budgeting process when the county and city approved $38 million in joint funding to better address homelessness. However, he said funding for the Street Services Coordination Center remains a challenge and he’ll be asking for more in the upcoming budget cycle.
Seraphie Allen, the mayor’s director of policy, did not provide an exact figure of how much money the city needs to fully enact the coordination center, but they did say the city needs additional funding to cover the cost of transportation for the navigation team outreach workers and the cost of transporting homeless people and their belongings to shelters.
The mayor is also hoping to obtain additional funding to cover the cost of making hotel rooms or other emergency shelter options available.
Myers said this emergency declaration is not intended to be permanent. The mayor will need to renew the declaration every two weeks and Myers expects it will take several months, if not more than a year before the city can identify any kind of long-term solution they could turn into a more permanent, operational system.
“It will take time to really see what the solution, what the benefits will be, and whether we want to turn this into something that is a future operation that we can step out of the emergency role and into something that is a bit more a normalized method of the way we do work,” he said.