Multnomah County Chair Candidates Spar Over the Future of the Joint Office of Homeless Services

The Joint Office, in reality, is not exactly a joint office.

On Tuesday, WW met with Multnomah County chair candidates Jessica Vega Pederson and Sharon Meieran, who are seeking this newspaper’s endorsement.

Both are sitting county commissioners vying for what is arguably the most powerful elected office in the Portland region. The county chair has complete control over the county’s budget—and its dollars dedicated to housing and homelessness, a budget that’s grown dramatically over the past year because of a tax on high-income earners that now rakes in tens of millions of dollars for homeless services.

The Joint Office of Homeless Services is a shared venture between the city of Portland and Multnomah County, which each fund it.

But the office has been the subject of heavy scrutiny over the past several years. Questions have been raised about its spending, its oversight, and its philosophy when it comes to homelessness—an approach that’s largely dictated by the sitting Multnomah County chair, Deborah Kafoury, who supports a “housing first” approach that prioritizes most dollars going to affordable, long-term housing, rental assistance and housing retention.

In WW’s endorsement interview, Meieran and Vega Pederson sparred over the performance of the Joint Office—and whether it should be a 50-50 partnership between the city and county, or the county should retain more power over JOHS’s spending.

Meieran argued the city should get a greater say in Joint Office matters.

“There’s some dotted line collection where the city gives a bunch of money to the county, it doesn’t have authority over what the JOHS does, and doesn’t have authority over the director…we do need to renegotiate that contract,” Meieran said. “I am already talking to [City Commissioner] Dan Ryan and others at the city about how we can make this about being an actual Joint Office.”

Vega Pederson argued that because the new supportive housing services tax on high-income earners is flowing through the county, the county’s dollars now constitute a majority of the Joint Office’s funding and it should still have more say over where Joint Office dollars go.

“The amount of dollars that are coming through the county, it really eclipses what the city is doing at this point,” Vega Pederson said. “And that has to be a factor in terms of how has responsibility of the director, staff and employees and overseeing the number of dollars.”

Meieran has long advocated that the county and Joint Office should pursue more shelter and alternative housing while awaiting affordable housing to be built—a position that has created tension between her and colleague Vega Pederson, who is aligned with Kafoury in a primarily “housing first” approach.

You can watch the full clip below.