Portland leaders balk at $40M idea to rent motels for homeless

Multnomah County

The Joint Office of Homeless Services wants a chunk of Portland's federal stimulus money

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Portland city councilors and Multnomah County commissioners are trying to figure out how to divide $114 in federal stimulus money but they can’t agree on one particular aspect. 

The Joint Office of Homeless Services wants a $40 million share of the stimulus money. The JOHS has worked hard over the past several weeks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among Portland’s homeless population. Doing so meant converting event spaces and community centers to temporary shelter and renting 495 rooms at local motels for those who are most at-risk. 

At a virtual meeting between the Portland City Council and Multnomah County Commission, the JOHS said the city and county need to keep renting those rooms for the next one-and-a-half years. 

“We have this health guidance that says that folks who are very vulnerable in our shelter system need additional isolation,” said Denis Theriault with the JOHS. “We’re going to be in a situation where the community is reopening. We’ve been able to spread shelter beds into public buildings but those buildings are going to revert back to their original use.” 

But some officials aren’t keen on what the JOHS is requesting. 

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City commissioners and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said there must be a better plan to allow the county and city to save money. Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty suggested the city and county use resources already available to them. 

“We have an empty college campus, we have the Gray Hound bus station, we have facilities we could use in an emergency in ways we have never imagined using,” Hardesty said. 

Hardesty referred to the amount of money the JOHS is requesting as “extraordinarily high.” 

“I just think that if we’re going to spend $40 million for 500 rooms and we have nothing at the end of it, that just seems to me that that is not common sense,” she said. 

Wheeler wants the funds to be achieve more than a temporary fix.  

“From a strategy perspective, you’re thinking exactly correctly: you’re thinking how do we maintain the shelter capacity and how do we also account for the reality of increased physical distancing?” he said. “What we’re missing is how do we leverage these dollars into a permanent solution.” 

The director of the Portland Housing Bureau suggested purchasing a motel would be more cost-effective in the long run. 

Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury shared the following statement with KOIN 6:

“One of my highest priorities has been doing whatever we can, as urgently as we can, to limit the spread of COVID-19 in our shelters so we can save the lives of those who are most vulnerable. 

Between finding the right spaces — and then, more important, finding staff to provide services and care — it’s true that maintaining that work over the next 18 months will require significant investment.

So long as we don’t lose ground on addressing this public health emergency, I’m open to any idea that can help us save money now and address, later, the housing crisis that will remain with us after this pandemic has gone.”

City and county leaders will continue to discuss ideas focused on permanent solutions in the future. 

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