Portland faces no bigger challenge than the plight of thousands of homeless people living on sidewalks, along highway ramps, and in tent villages throughout the city.
Last year, that crisis prompted regional voters to raise billions of dollars in new taxes for homeless services. Now, some question whether the Multnomah County office charged with spending those funds is set up to make the best decisions.
The stakes are enormous—not just for the homeless but for taxpayers.
This year, the Joint Office of Homeless Services will spend about $150 million, twice its budget two years ago.
As the largest beneficiary of the homeless services bond passed by Metro voters in 2020, the office’s budget will only grow. The measure will send nearly $1 billion to the joint office over the next decade. (It’s called the “joint” office because City Hall and the county chip in roughly equal funding to it—$30 million to $35 million each per year.)
Some critics say the joint office has failed to move with sufficient urgency to find safe, dry places for homeless people to sleep.
“The joint office’s role should be to address the immediate emergency on our streets, and I have not seen that kind of leadership from them,” says City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty. “If we are in a crisis, why are we not acting like it?”
Part of Hardesty’s complaint is a philosophical disagreement: She and other city officials want more shelters, while the county is focused on permanent housing. (County officials dispute that narrative, saying they’ve moved aggressively to open shelters.)
But she and others also maintain that the joint office operates in an excessively cozy atmosphere of partnerships with nonprofits. In other words, says Hardesty, the people handing out the money don’t have sufficient distance from the people receiving it.
“Anytime you set up a process where the people making decisions about how money gets spent are also beneficiaries, it’s inherently flawed,” Hardesty says. “It’s a big problem.”
Hardesty worries the patterns she’s observed at the joint office threaten to undermine the effectiveness of the new funding voters approved.
“We need a different model,” she says. “If the money gets sucked up doing what we’ve always done, then we will get the same results we’ve always gotten.”
One example of that coziness involves the man who has run the joint office since its founding: Marc Jolin.
Jolin, 52, a top student in his class at the University of Chicago Law School, chucked corporate law 15 years ago to help the homeless, first at the Portland nonprofit JOIN. In January 2015, he shifted to Multnomah County to run what was then called A Home for Everyone and, in July 2016, became the Joint Office of Homeless Services.
Observers who know Jolin say he’s scrupulously honest, fair and entirely committed to reducing homelessness.
“Marc Jolin is the person who, when everyone else has gone home to bed during a winter storm, drives the streets of Portland dropping off blankets to people on the street, works shifts at emergency shelters, and hands out supplies,” says Jolin’s boss, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury. “And that’s after spending at least 12 hours a day building a response system that serves thousands more people now than it did before the Joint Office of Homeless Services existed.”
In December, as the three counties geared up to begin spending the new Metro homeless services money, Jolin’s office requested proposals from consultants to help the counties prepare. Thirty-nine firms responded.
Jolin’s office ranked the proposals and sent its results to the three Metro-area counties—Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas—that will use the scores to decide on contracts.
The top scorer on that RFP: a company called Kristina Smock Consulting.
Smock is Jolin’s wife.
Three of the five members of the scoring panel that rated Smock, including Jolin’s deputy, Joshua Bates, work for Jolin at the joint office.
Jolin’s spokesman, Denis Theriault, says Jolin had no involvement in the panel and that the RFP process followed normal county procurement procedures.
Smock disclosed her relationship to Jolin in her application, saying she would not take work from Multnomah County. Instead, she hoped to receive money from Washington and Clackamas counties. (She has not received contracts from either county since then.)
Smock, 50, holds a Ph.D. from Northwestern University in sociology. She has worked in the field of homelessness and affordable housing in Multnomah County for almost 30 years and, she tells WW, “I have a set of skills and experiences that make me particularly qualified for the projects that I take on.”
But the role of Jolin’s office in grading Smock’s application raises questions about past practices. Since Jolin became a county employee in January 2015, records obtained by WW show, Smock has obtained a series of contracts in his orbit.
Those contracts include $16,500 to write a report on poverty for the Multnomah County Department of County Human Services in 2015; a $28,000 contract in 2016 with JOIN, a provider of homeless services; a $22,000 contract in 2019 with Human Solutions, a shelter provider; and a $23,400 contract in 2019, also with DCHS.
JOIN and Human Solutions get much of their funding from Jolin’s office. Over the past three years, his office has paid the two nonprofits about $32 million—$18 million to JOIN and $14 million to Human Solutions. The payments constitute more than a quarter of Human Solutions’ budget and more than half of JOIN’s.
Theriault says Jolin had no involvement in decision making about the county contracts Smock received. Both nonprofits also say Jolin’s position had nothing to do with their decisions to hire Smock.
Jolin says he disclosed potential conflicts of interest stemming from his wife’s business when he joined the county and does not believe her contracts violate county or state ethical guidelines, which prohibit using one’s public position for private gain or favoring a family member.
“We take our ethical responsibilities very seriously,” Jolin says. “She doesn’t need my help to get contacts—and, in fact, I’d never do anything to help her.”
Theriault notes that Smock actually lost work, including managing the point in time count, which tallies baseline data on homeless Portlanders every two years. She’d led that count since 2009 but stopped when it became Jolin’s responsibility—a contract worth $30,000.
“I have acted at all times in accordance with the guidance I received on conflicts of interest,” Smock says. “As a professional with decades of experience and a reputation for high-quality work, my business relationships with the nonprofits and service providers in this community go back well before the creation of the JOHS.”
Yet observers of the work done by the joint office were surprised to learn that Smock is still accepting contracts within her husband’s orbit.
Bob Ames, a former president of both the Prosper Portland and Port of Portland boards, and now a commercial real estate owner, says people spending public money have to be extremely careful. “You can’t get anywhere close to a conflict,” Ames says. “It’s the kind of thing that can easily turn into a fire.”
Robert McCullough, an energy consultant and former Southeast Uplift Neighborhood Program leader, says Jolin and Smock should have drawn bright lines between their duties. “In public work,” McCullough says, “you have to be astonishingly careful or you end with the appearance of impropriety.”
Hardesty agrees. “It doesn’t smell right,” she says. “It’s not appropriate. When you are handling the amount of public money the joint office is, you have to avoid even the appearance of a conflict.”
There’s a far larger issue on the table at the Joint Office of Homeless Services than contracts involving the director’s spouse.
Highly placed critics have raised questions about larger-scale conflicts of interest. Specifically, they point to members of a volunteer board that guides the joint office’s work who also have contracts with the office—and will be seeking more.
“Most of the coordinating board members are employees of organizations who receive funding from the county, creating a conflict of interest,” wrote Vanessa Sturgeon, CEO of TMT Development, in Sept. 8 email to city and county officials that WW obtained through a public records request. “It raises both ethical and governance concerns.”
The governance of homeless services is complicated.
Sturgeon is a member of the executive committee of A Home for Everyone. That group of seven includes five elected officials, led by Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler. Beneath the executive committee sits a 33-member coordinating board.
Representatives of 20 private nonprofits sit on the coordinating board. In addition to JOIN and Human Solutions, they include Transition Projects Inc., Central City Concern and Cascadia Behavorial Healthcare.
County spokeswoman Julie Sullivan Springhetti notes that some of the nonprofits on the board don’t have county contracts, but those who do comprise “about half of our contracted partners.”
Last year, the coordinating board wrote the plan for how the joint office should spend the new Metro money.
Sturgeon’s concern is that the nonprofits recommending how the money should be spent are among the same groups that will get the money.
Critics acknowledge those firms and other nonprofits bring vast expertise to the board.
“The concept of a dedicated board of experts advising homeless policy makes great sense,” says Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran, who has joined Sturgeon in calling for a legal review of potential conflicts related to the joint office. “But the system breaks down if there is an opportunity—or if it even looks like there’s an opportunity—for members of the board to use their position to influence decisions around funding their own organizations.”
Meieran has also called for more experts with no financial stake in contracts—such as county public and behavioral health officials—to be included on the coordinating board.
Jon Isaacs, a Portland Business Alliance lobbyist, and Mark Bond, an aide to Housing Commissioner Dan Ryan, supported Sturgeon’s call for outside ethics guidance at the coordinating board’s Sept. 1 meeting.
But Kafoury downplays Sturgeon’s concerns.
“I am not aware of any conflicts of interest,” Kafoury tells WW. “The coordinating board isn’t just a group of service providers. Members also come from business associations, education districts, neighborhoods, and health care, or they’re community members serving at large, or elected officials. They don’t spend money, they give advice.”
There’s little question that concerns over how bond dollars will be spent stem in part from a good faith disagreement over the most effective ways to help people who are homeless.
But the double role of some nonprofits in steering and receiving taxpayer money could blind them to solutions they cannot provide.
Helen Ying, an educator and longtime advocate for Old Town-Chinatown, is one of the community members on the coordinating board. She thinks Sturgeon and Meieran raise a valid point.
“The board shouldn’t be dominated by service providers,” Ying says. There’s little discussion or appetite, she adds, for trying new solutions to homelessness, which she thinks hinders progress. “The way we are serving our homeless population right now—we need a huge improvement from where we are.”