Mayor Ted Wheeler Proposes Spending Less This Year on Homeless Services

Despite a campaign pledge to open a shelter bed for every person on the streets of Portland, the mayor is proposing to cut the city's investment in homeless services.

Mayor Ted Wheeler (right) and City Commissioner Amanda Fritz. (Thomas Teal)

During his 2016 campaign, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler made a high-profile pledge to ensure a shelter bed for everyone living on Portland streets by the end of 2018.

In announcing his first proposed budget more than a year later, Wheeler insists he's living up to that campaign promise.

"My budget makes the largest ever investments to address homelessness, by investing more than $25 million to the Joint Office of Homeless Services, matching the county's generous commitment," said Wheeler on May 1.

But budget documents show that the investment he's proposing is not a record—it's roughly $300,000 less than the city contributed last year—and none of it is dedicated to adding shelter beds.

Budget documents and memos from the county and city show Wheeler's budget may cause a reduction in shelter beds.

Instead, he's dedicating more funds to sweeping homeless camps and cleanup.

Before the mayor's budget is approved by City Council, Multnomah County officials are asking the mayor and commissioners to reconsider.

"I'm hopeful that the other commissioners and members of or community will push for more funding to address this emergency," says County Chair Deborah Kafoury. "The amount that the county funded, and the amount the joint office asked for, was necessary for keeping all the shelter beds we have available open."

The mayor is also proposing to give the Joint Office of Homeless Services $2.6 million less than the joint office requested. About $1.7 million of that request was needed to maintain the current number of beds, according to a memo that Marc Jolin, executive director of the joint office, sent to the mayor's chief of staff among others on April 12.

"Without the city's contribution, we will not lose all the available capacity, but we will have to close some existing year-round shelters for women, DV, or families, and/or not open temporary low-barrier shelter for vulnerable adults," the memo says.

The mayor's office offered a competing picture of the budget.

"Last year's appropriation included one-time mid-year funding for projects that were one-time in nature (capital expenses, reimbursement for one-time Springwater clean-up costs), which bolstered the year's budget but are not expected to be needed again," says Cox.

Instead, the mayor announced other priorities. He's spending nearly $1 million more than in previous years cleaning up and sweeping homeless camps.

At his budget announcement, the mayor denied knowing how many shelter beds would be created with his proposed budget, but said he expected to see an increase.

"I don't have a firm number, and it sort of depends," Wheeler said. "Keep in my mind, I'm only one partner in the joint office. There is no question in mind that we need alternatives to people living under overpasses, in parks, in doorways, so my strong vote would be for a significant expansion of emergency shelter capacity in this community."

But according to a April 12 memo, the $2.6 million for the joint office that the city opted against providing was meant to cover the cost of helping 160 people living in shelters find more permanent housing along with continuing the funding for either 198 beds in year-found shelters or 420 beds in winter shelters, according to the memo from joint office director Marc Jolin and obtained via a public records request.

It's unlikely the need for shelter beds has gone down.

The city and county are short by more than 1,000 shelter beds, assuming that the number of homeless people in Multnomah County has not changed in more than two years since the last initial official count. But it's likely the number of homeless people has spiked, according to early indications. The next official count is due out as soon as late May.

As Jolin himself has explained, there's an argument against spending money on shelter beds. Every dollars spent on a shelter is money that can't be spent on creating or helping people stay in actual homes.

But as OPB noted on Monday, the mayor proposed no new funding for creating affordable housing—a somewhat surprising choice given that Wheeler made housing a central issue of his campaign and has chosen to oversee the Portland Housing Bureau himself.

The mayor says he's creating affordable housing by convening an oversight committee for a bond voters approved in November and working to reduce the permitting costs for developers.

The dispute over whether Wheeler should dedicate more money to shelter comes as the city and county jockey over a partnership created by Kafoury and former Mayor Charlie Hales.

Last year, the city contributed $25.3 million million to the joint office, the first year the city and county combined resources to address homelessness, including investments throughout the year.

Both the county and the city pledged to provide at least $15 million the first year of the joint office's existence, with a 2 percent increase each year. But last year the county and city invested far more.

This year, Kafoury has proposed a substantial increase in the county's budget, roughly $25 million. City budget officials said the county's contribution means there won't be a loss of services, a matter of dispute.

In a meeting last month of the executive committee for a Home for Everyone, which is the board overseeing homelessness and housing across the county, the mayor laid out his desire to shift some of the city's funds in responding to Portlanders' complaints about homelessness, such as needles and garbage.

"My budget as mayor not only has to reflect the the good work that's being done through this effort but if we're not going to address those other public health and public safety issues, I've got to reserve some of my budget to address those issues, because that's frankly what I'm getting the calls about," said Wheeler. "I don't think we can ignore community standards. [But] I don't think they're telling us to stop making those investments."

If his budget passes, Wheeler will expand on the system Hales created for addressing homeless camps. Complaints go to Office of Management and Finance, who in turn coordinate efforts to sweep and clean up campsites.

The logic of that organizational choice is that OMF, with no specific connection to homelessness, is charged with overseeing the city's properties, even if the issue obviously isn't limited to city properties.

The mayor plans to add $952,000 to do more cleanup work out of OMF as well as $364,000 to the parks budget for four parks rangers to help maintain the Springwater Corridor and another $152,000 toward more rangers operating in downtown.

Commissioner Nick Fish praised the mayor's proposed budget but said he expected to see a robust discussion on whether to expand the funding to "end homelessness," including using $4 million in city reserves.

"Where we're going to have to take a closer look is how we align with the county and a Home for Everyone," Fish says, without taking a position. "Are there enough resources in the budget to move people from homelessness into housing?"

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