Joint Office of Homeless Services Contracting Woes Create Instability for Survivors of Domestic Violence

Short-term deals and low pay plague contractors.

Bri Condon (Mick Hangland-Skill)

Bri Condon recognizes it’s risky to criticize the largest source of funding for the Portland nonprofit she leads. But the executive director of Bradley Angle, the West Coast’s oldest domestic violence shelter, says she has reached a breaking point.

After reading a recent WW story about the Joint Office of Homeless Services’ continual underspending of tens of millions of dollars it gets from Metro’s supportive housing services measure (The Big Number, WW, March 22), Condon decided to go public with her frustration.

Multnomah County officials, who direct the Joint Office, had blamed the sluggish spending on a shortage of capacity in the nonprofit sector—that is, service providers that contract with the county couldn’t hire enough people to handle the work. Condon says the real issue is the Joint Office’s shaky contracting practices and its unwillingness to offer contractors realistic compensation.

She calls the county’s claims of capacity shortage “political misdirection.”

“It’s not that they don’t have enough partners,” Condon says. “The contracts don’t provide enough support, and we can’t pay a living wage.”

Voters passed the Metro measure in 2020 in an unprecedented response to widespread homelessness. Judging from Multnomah County’s point-in-time count of people living on the streets—it showed a 30% increase in homelessness from 2019—the situation has worsened.

In effect, the Joint Office functions as a way station for money meant to address the problem. The office provides few services directly to homeless people. Instead, it allocates funding to contractors.

Bradley Angle is one such contractor, focused on women and nonbinary people fleeing domestic violence. The nonprofit gets most of its annual budget—$3.2 million in 2022—from government sources. Condon says the Joint Office is Bradley Angle’s biggest government funder, providing about 45% of the money it gets from government sources.

But Condon says the county is failing to provide the nonprofit with reliable funding in two ways. First, the county has failed to offer long-term contracts, making it difficult for Bradley Angle to provide clients with stable housing. Second, the county’s contract rate is so low Bradley Angle struggles to retain staff.

Condon’s dilemma is the result of a decision Multnomah County made as far back as 1980 to outsource some of its most crucial work to mission-driven nonprofits staffed by lower-cost nonunion employees.

Many county contractors subsequently unionized, but a Multnomah County spokesman concedes that low wages may be hampering the spending of dollars that taxpayers want to see hitting the streets. He says the county is studying the matter.

Condon says voters who supported the 2020 Metro measure, which will provide more than $100 million of the Joint Office’s $255 million budget this year, may be confused about why things haven’t gotten better.

“It’s not that domestic violence agencies need more staff,” she says. “I don’t want a single additional staffer we have to underpay.”

There’s a nexus between domestic violence and homelessness.

Statistics show that many of the people living on the streets fled their homes for their own safety. Multnomah County’s 2022 point-in-time count of homeless residents found that 57% of the homeless women interviewed reported they were survivors of domestic violence—that’s more than double the rate among the general population. And 25% of people experiencing homelessness cited domestic violence as leading directly to their loss of housing.

Meanwhile, the pandemic intensified domestic violence. Bradley Angle served 606 survivors last year, for instance, up from 383 in 2021 and 173 in 2020. One number didn’t change: About 80% of clients were people of color. (The Joint Office budgeted $8 million for domestic violence services this year.)

Condon says two factors have made the tripling of her organization’s caseload particularly difficult to manage.

First, she says, the Joint Office told her in the first half of 2022 that rather than offer a new five-year contract for Bradley Angle and its dozen or so peers to bid on, the county had decided to extend the existing contract by six months. “JOHS said they couldn’t get the contracts out, so they just did a six-month rollover,” Condon says. “This is not an organized situation.”

That happened again late in the year, and Condon fears it may happen a third time.

Bradley Angle provides safe living spaces, counseling, and skill-building and other services to its clients. Some live in a building the nonprofit owns, but about 45 live in short-term rentals, paid for by direct pass-through dollars from the Joint Office.

The lack of a long-term contract makes such placements dicey—on a six-month contract, Bradley Angle can’t confidently secure yearlong leases for its clients.

“Survivors are fleeing traumatizing situations, facing barriers due to their identities, and often feeling abandoned by the system,” says Rose Ngo, Bradley Angle’s director of programs and services. “They want a sense of stability and to be able to trust who they are working with.”

Alexxis Robinson-Woods, who until October ran Call to Safety, a 24-hour domestic violence crisis line, describes similar frustrations with the Joint Office.

“I don’t know if it was mismanagement or the turnover in directors,” says Robinson-Woods, now at the Oregon Department of Justice, “but I finally had to find other funding.”

Joint Office spokesman Denis Theriault says a “procurement issue” caused the JOHS’s contracting authority for domestic violence services to lapse, necessitating two six-month rollovers. He expects the agency to resume normal contracting July 1. “Providers will be back on JOHS’s regular five-year contract cycle,” Theriault says.

Low staff pay also contributes to instability. Bradley Angle employs about 30 people, most working in direct service to survivors. Condon says turnover is running nearly 60% a year.

“People are leaving because they can’t afford to stay,” Condon says, adding that staff departures are disruptive to survivors who form bonds with staff.

Bradley Angle pays the advocates who work with survivors about $21 an hour. They can go across town and earn $27 an hour for similar work with better benefits—working directly for Multnomah County.

Condon says Bradley Angle has seen several staff members make that move. They get their training at the nonprofit and then get a big raise from the agency that is Bradley Angle’s largest funder. She doesn’t blame the workers; she blames the county for explicitly signaling Bradley Angle’s employees are underpaid but doing nothing about it.

Theriault says the agency hears that complaint loud and clear.

“The Joint Office is currently finalizing a provider wage study that analyzes the wages of our providers across our system with this issue in mind,” he says. “The Joint Office knows that more funding is needed to ensure providers’ employees earn a living wage.”

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