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Emotions Well Up in a Debate Over How to Best Help Portland’s Homeless

Being flush with money brings problems, and city and county leaders are fighting over how to best use their share of the money that metro-area voters approved last May.

By now, no one is surprised when an argument about how to address homelessness in Portland spurs high emotions and harsh words. It’s more unusual for a public hearing to leave an elected official in tears.

But that’s what happened May 5, when Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran broke ranks with some of the city’s leading housing advocates—and received a frosty reception for criticizing their plans.

It’s the latest sign of a rift between advocates and business interests who worked together last year to boost a $52 million annual tax on high-income households, but are now fracturing over how to spend it.

Being flush with money brings problems, and city and county leaders are fighting over how to best use their share of the money that metro-area voters approved last May.

It’s resulted in a series of tense meetings of the complicated matrix of city and county agencies, metro boards, elected officials and nonprofits that are tasked with creating a combined force to best use the money to get people off the streets.

Two visions of how to spend the money have emerged, and emotions are running high.

The framework that’s gotten the all but official nod is tucked within a plan crafted by the city and county’s Joint Office of Homeless Services. It’s the plan recommended in Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury’s proposed budget and the one backed by most stakeholders.

The bare bones of the plan for the first year include: erecting alternative shelters to serve up to 200 people, long-term housing for 800, rapid rehousing for 500, rent assistance for 930 households in imminent danger of becoming homeless, and 200 extra year-round shelter beds.

But some elected officials have argued the plan doesn’t put near enough investment into options that can shelter people immediately.

Meieran has spearheaded that discontent and has found an ally in Mayor Ted Wheeler at planning meetings.

“I have some concerns that are maybe in alignment with [Meieran’s]. I’m already getting calls from constituents who are asking why there are so many people living outside when we just passed this huge measure,” Wheeler said at an April 20 executive meeting of A Home for Everyone, a group made up of stakeholders who guide the city and county in addressing homelessness.

Meieran was so unhappy with the consensus plan that she crafted her own vision of how the region could erect alternative shelters with a six-month plan that includes options like pods, tent sites and safe parking sites. Though that plan’s unlikely to make it into Kafoury’s budget, Meieran is still fighting to have it considered.

The rift between the competing visions has become stark in a series of meetings by the A Home for Everyone board about funding, where advocates on May 5 voiced a suspicion that Meieran’s plan was backed by business interests who want to remove tents from the sidewalks.

Below is the exchange that led up to Meieran becoming emotional. It’s between Meieran and Marisa Zapata, professor and director of Portland State University’s Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative. It’s been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Meieran: “It looks like there’s possibly an increase of about 350 to 400 shelter beds plus alternative shelter beds that are accounted for in this proposed budget, with 800 units of supportive housing, and that’s for the people who are living outside right now. I feel that’s a small number of people in the big scheme of people living unsheltered right now.

“What I’m proposing is a coordinated network of outdoor shelter sites that will provide safety, community and basic hygiene services for people currently experiencing homelessness.

“We have all these rungs and tiers for the long-term work that all of us agree we need to be doing, and we’re kind of missing a first rung that is big enough to help transition people.”

Zapata: “We’ve already talked about this stuff 95 million times, and I feel like, at this point, are we just going over stuff again because some people aren’t happy? I have a real process issue with referring to a plan that not all of us have seen or reviewed. I don’t know if we’re suddenly being asked to suddenly back a random plan or if the point is larger.

“Is it that just everyone’s pet projects aren’t listed?

“I actually very much agree that we need to have a really structured conversation in how we support people amidst this crisis, but it can’t just be a one-off…

“I think that if we want to do this, we have to start asking people what would help them and build out from there. The answers might not be tent networks to tiny pod villages, it’s more complicated than that.

“If we’re suddenly just throwing out more proposals, when can I put my proposal together?”

Katrina Holland, executive director of Join PDX: “I have a question for Commissioner Meieran: With this proposal you’re bringing forward, is the hope that this would be an option that folks can choose, or is the hope that there would be enough built environments of alternative structures that the city would have the ability to tell people, ‘You can camp here and you cannot camp here’?”

Meieran: “The hope with this is to provide people with options. It would be a continuum of options, so from safe sleep sites, if that’s where people feel comfortable, to safe parking lots. I’m not coming at this from just a random, ‘Oh, I think we need to solve homelessness, I’ve never thought about this before, I haven’t been out on the street, I haven’t provided medical care to people on the street.’ I come at this as someone who’s actually done some direct service, who speaks with a lot of people who are houseless and advocates.

Here, Meieran becomes visibly emotional and her voice shakes.

“Sorry, my motto is speak your mind even if your voice shakes, and I know my voice is shaking right now. The way that we even have this conversation is to me so disrespectful. We talk about having difficult conversations, we talk about inclusion and equity and respecting people, and what I find is, we actually don’t have those difficult conversations because certain voices and perspectives are silenced or mocked or disregarded for whatever reason. It does not actually feel like a safe space in many ways, and in recognizing that I’m privileged, I’m an elected official, that I’m white, all of these things—and for me it doesn’t feel safe. I can imagine it might not feel safe for other people.”

A recording of the AFHE Coordinating Board meeting is below.