A New Split in the Debate on Homelessness Emerges: Who Will Fund Wraparound Services at Portland’s Safe Rest Villages?

County Chair Deborah Kafoury’s office says it’s too early to know what the plan will look like and what resources will be necessary.

tent site A Multnomah County safe tent site near the Eastbank Esplanade. (Motoya Nakamura / Multnomah County)

A new sticking point has emerged surrounding how Portland and Multnomah County deal with homelessness: Who, if anyone, will provide behavioral and mental health resources at the six “safe rest villages” the city plans to erect?

That new question was on display Thursday during Multnomah County’s budget approval vote. The budget includes $150 million for supportive housing efforts, a portion of which comes from the supportive housing services measure approved last year by voters.

The allocation of those funds has caused friction between city and county leaders over the past two months. While County Chair Kafoury threw most of the funds toward permanent supportive housing, Mayor Ted Wheeler, City Commissioner Dan Ryan and County Commissioner Sharon Meieran argued that more of the money should be allocated to short-term and alternative shelter options.

Kafoury didn’t budge—placing most of the money toward permanent housing—but that conflict seemed to largely subside last week when Ryan and Kafoury released a joint statement pledging to address the immediate needs of homeless people. The statement announced Ryan’s plan to build six safe rest villages across the city by the end of the year, using a portion of the city’s American Rescue Plan funds.

The safe rest villages, the brainchild of Ryan, will provide basic hygiene services and case management. The price tag he’s looking at is $20 million, and the city is voting on an ordinance next week that would move the project forward.

But while Kafoury pledged her support for Ryan’s plan, the county isn’t offering funding to support those sites with wraparound services—yet.

The county did approve half a million dollars toward culturally specific outreach services to connect people to sites, and $175,000 for a mobile shower truck, as well as $300,000 for the Joint Office of Homeless Services to help coordinate the building of alternative shelters, including the city’s safe rest villages.

But at the meeting on Thursday, where county commissioners ultimately approved the budget unanimously, Commissioner Sharon Meieran rebuked her colleagues for not pledging funds for wraparound services at the sites.

“I believe that with the budget as we’re adopting it,” Meieran said, “we’re going to continue to experience some of the status quo with unsheltered homelessness and may even see a worsening of the situation.”

Meieran added that she was thrilled the city had formulated the plan and that Kafoury backed it, but she expressed disappointment that the county wasn’t dedicating financial support to Ryan’s idea.

“To truly be the partner that we’ve announced to the world that we are, we need behavioral health and case management support, now,” said Meieran, who still voted yes on the budget. “We’ve dedicated essentially no new funding to support of the sites—to behavioral health or case management that’s needed at those sites.”

Kafoury’s office tells WW that the county can’t say whether its financial support is yet needed, because officials haven’t sat down with the city to discuss the details of the plan and what type of resources will be appropriate for the sites. Essentially, what they’re saying is: It’s just too early to know.

“As Commissioner Ryan and other City Council offices work to identify sites for shelter and develop the details, we will be working with them to determine what onsite services might look like,” Kafoury said to WW in a statement. “And I’m committed to ensuring the right services will be in place when these sites are open.”

County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson defended the chair’s budget through a spokesperson: “This budget dedicates more than $150 million to address our homelessness crisis, a historic amount, with funding for additional outreach workers, expanded shelter beds, hygiene services, rental assistance, and wraparound services. These investments will have a huge impact in responding directly to the homeless crisis our neighbors are facing.”

The lack of a plan for wraparound behavioral and mental health resources at the villages raised a swell of concern among nonprofit housing advocates at last week’s A Home for Everyone executive committee meeting, too.

Stacy Borke, senior director of programs at Transition Projects, said at the meeting that “proactively infusing these sites with pathways out of them is critical, because the moment someone comes in, if we don’t have a way to support them to their next step, the efficacy of that crisis response system stops and becomes stagnant.”

Katrina Holland, executive director of JOIN, echoed that concern: “If we don’t have support for folks who are experiencing substance abuse, when they get to those campsites, not having that support can be really detrimental.”

Business for a Better Portland, a progressive business group, sent a letter to the mayor, Kafoury and city and county commissioners on June 3 expressing concern that if the sites don’t have built-in wraparound services, they could fail. That letter was shared with WW.

“We must develop a village model that includes pathways out of them from the very beginning, which means supportive services must be co-located: Employment, rental assistance and behavioral health resources are all essential if these villages are to succeed. It is also imperative that we distribute these villages equitably throughout the city, lest they become ‘out of sight, out of mind,’” the letter read.

It added a warning: “There is nothing more detrimental to our efforts to address homelessness than the appearance of inaction and poor results. Confidence in government is approaching a nadir, and no time should be wasted in reversing that trend.”

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