Portland’s Public Housing Authority Got 476 Emergency Housing Vouchers in June. It’s Used 15 of Them.

It’s a different story in the rest of Oregon, where nearly 60% of vouchers have been used.

In June, the federal government announced it was issuing 70,000 emergency housing vouchers to help Americans displaced by the COVID-19 pandemic or other factors.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development said it was providing the emergency housing assistance—effectively cash for rent—“in order to assist individuals and families who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, fleeing, or attempting to flee, domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, stalking, or human trafficking, or were recently homeless or have a high risk of housing instability.”

When HUD issued the vouchers in June, Home Forward (formerly known as the Housing Authority of Portland) got 476 of them to use across Multnomah County.

Home Forward executive director Michael Buonocore said his agency was “thrilled” to have the opportunity to deploy the emergency assistance to help people sleeping on the streets.

But WW has learned that since then, Home Forward has issued just 15 of the 476 vouchers the feds sent here.

That means just 3% of vouchers available locally have been put to work over the past six months.

The story is different elsewhere in Oregon, according to a federal database that is updated daily.

Outside of Multnomah County, nearly 60% of the 1,106 emergency vouchers in other Oregon counties have been put to use. Lane County has distributed 169 of its 184 vouchers, for instance; Washington County has distributed 89 of 95 vouchers it received; and Clackamas County has used all 41 of its vouchers. (Nationally, one-third of vouchers have been put to work.)

A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) says Wyden is “deeply disappointed” at Home Forward’s lack of progress.

As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Wyden pushed for the vouchers to be included in the American Rescue Plan Act, which passed in March.

“Those vouchers add lifelines for folks needing a roof over their heads and a floor under their feet,” Wyden spokesman Hank Stern said in a statement. “This is urgent business throughout the year to prevent tragedies on the streets, and especially so now as temperatures drop with the onset of winter.”

Monica Foucher, a spokeswoman for Home Forward, says the agency is working hard to get the vouchers in place.

“We are treating this as an emergency, and our staff is working hard to connect with applicants and issue the vouchers as efficiently as possible,” Foucher said.

“Until recently, the slow pace was due to the speed of referrals,” Foucher said. “Of our 83 referrals in hand, most of them are from the past few weeks. That is no longer an issue, and referrals are now ramping up.”

Foucher added that a staffing shortage at Home Forward and partner agencies “further complicates engagement with vulnerable applicants experiencing unsheltered homelessness or significant instability.”

Asked why Home Forward’s rate of deployment is so much lower than elsewhere in Oregon, Foucher said, “We are dealing with different circumstances than the rest of the state.”

Denis Theriault, a spokesman for Portland and Multnomah County’s Joint Office of Homeless Services, which is coordinating with Home Forward, says more vouchers should soon be in place.

“It sounds like they have been assigned to households, but the lease-up work is still in process,” Theriault says. “They are in some in-between space.”

HUD issued the vouchers nationally June 10 but told local housing authorities a month earlier than that—on May 10—how many vouchers each would likely get. The initial allocation cost $1.1 billion and covers housing for 18 months. HUD expects to extend the program for additional periods until it exhausts a total budget of $5 billion for the emergency program.

Wyden is displeased.

“Local housing officials should have started identifying recipients for these 476 vouchers back in June, and Sen. Wyden is deeply disappointed to find out that more of these available vouchers have still not been distributed to Oregonians desperate for housing,” Stern added. “This distribution process should have happened months ago and he will continue to push on local officials to get these vital lifelines distributed immediately.”