Local leaders talk taxes, tactics in homelessness crisis

Civic Affairs

The Joint Office of Homeless Services held a public meeting Tuesday night

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Portland and Multnomah County leaders held a public meeting on Tuesday night to talk about their work in fighting homelessness and some of the biggest needs that still need to be met.

Recently the City of Portland and Multnomah County revealed data that showed an increase over the past 2 years of people living on the streets. During that time, those considered “chronically homeless” jumped by nearly 500 people.

“The data makes clear that there is a spike in chronic homelessness,” said Portland Commissioner Nick Fish at Tuesday’s meeting.

Joint Office of Homeless Services Director Marc Jolin said Tuesday while the number of homeless on Portland streets has remained fairly consistent, more and more are being helped in shelters and permanent housing.

“Prevention is often the most cost-effective intervention we can make,” he said.

Jolin said the situation on public streets would be “substantially worse” if it wasn’t for investments in things like new shelters — including places for families — and transitional resources. There are also hundreds of new permanent supportive housing options which are part of the city and county’s commitment to create 2,000 by 2028. Services like the Street Response Team are also helping to improve interactions with the chronically homeless.

But there are still major concerns.

“There are more people sleeping on our streets and those folks are older and sicker than they have been in the past,” said Multnomah County Commission Chairwoman Deborah Kafoury.

The board hopes a new behavioral health resource center which was only recently approved for downtown can help fill a key role.

“There is not a place for people who are homeless who have severe substance use or mental health issues to go,” said District 1 Commissioner Sharon Meieran.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said Oregon “has a long history of ignoring mental health and addiction services.”

City and county leaders meet to discuss the homelessness crisis in the Portland area, Nov. 12, 2019. (KOIN)

Leaders agreed that they need to ask voters for help, saying they aren’t getting enough from the federal or state government.

“The elephant in the room is are you paying for this out of the joint office budget? Is the county paying for this? Or is there a new ask: Are we going to the voters with that ask?” said Wheeler. “I feel like we need to be stronger and clearer about what is the plan, what is the gap. What’s it gonna take to the fill the gap and how do we create a plan and what do we do every single year to fulfill that gap?”

Commissioner Fish said the majority of voters have made it clear that homelessness is their top concern but the financial resources just aren’t available to support homelessness services.

“This huge opportunity that is in front of us is to go back to the voters and say help us with these services,” he said. “I think that’s the key to making another big move in our progress.”

Chairwoman Kafoury echoed that thought.

“I hear daily from people who really want to do something, they don’t know what to do,” she said. “People want us to solve the issue now and the best way we can do that is to ask the voters for additional resources.”

It’s unclear what kind of tax may end up on the 2020 ballot.

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