Portland Officials Ask Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury to Dramatically Expand Homelessness Strategy

The outlined expectations are ambitious and sweeping—and might find a tough audience in Deborah Kafoury.

SUITCASE AND TENT: An unsheltered person sits on the side of Southwest Broadway in downtown Portland on May 9, 2022. (Blake Benard)

Portland city officials this week sent a letter to Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, asking her to sign on to Mayor Ted Wheeler’s plan to ban unsanctioned camping and open three enormous “campuses” for unhoused people.

The Oct. 12 letter, obtained by WW, is significant for two reasons. First, it outlines in writing the mayor’s plan, first reported today by WW, to move homeless people from city sidewalks and parks into three sanctioned campsites. Second, it asks Kafoury to join in the project—with the implicit threat that, if she doesn’t, Portland could walk away from its funding of the Joint Office of Homeless Services.

The letter, sent to Kafoury by Wheeler and City Commissioner Dan Ryan, asks that county officials immediately agree to a list of strategies to counter the homelessness crisis.

“The City of Portland and Multnomah County have overlapping geographic bounds, and we must be clear on the responsibilities our respective charters identify,” Wheeler and Ryan wrote. “Therefore, it is vital that we define what each of our governments must bring to the table to address the homelessness crisis.”

They wrote that they expect the county to do the following: operate all funded shelter beds, a total of 2,400; manage all future six safe rest villages; provide wraparound services at all shelters; fund and build stabilization centers; and build three large camping sites that the mayor’s office plans to announce next week, as first reported by WW on Thursday afternoon.

Another responsibility they expect of the county: provide private security for all shelters and treatment centers.

The city agreed it would embark on the following: “facilitate construction of 20,000 units of affordable housing by 2023...create affordable landbank of up to ‘400 shovel-ready’ publicly owned sites”; enforce a citywide ban on unsanctioned camping; provide outreach services for homeless Portlanders; and keep Portland Street Response running citywide.

Wheeler and Ryan also asked the county to agree to embark on an 18-month phased ban on unsanctioned camping. It’s the first time such a ban, reported Thursday by WW, has been mentioned in official communications.

They also asked that the county join the city in lobbying Metro to change the funding allocation for its supportive housing services measure so that the three counties get funding based on their percentage of the homeless population across the region.

The expectations outlined by the city in the letter are tremendously ambitious, broad and far-reaching—and are likely to find a tough audience in Kafoury, who’s long sparred with the city over how homelessness dollars should be spent.

But the city has leverage: It partly funds the Joint Office of Homeless Services, the agenda of which is largely shaped by Kafoury.

That office has become a point of contention between the city and the county over the past few years as the homelessness crisis worsens, even as more dollars flow through the Joint Office to remedy it.

In April of this year, the city and county agreed to extend the five-year Joint Office agreement by an additional year until the summer of 2023 to allow for longer talks about the future of the office. That in itself signaled a tension: that the two parties couldn’t agree on the structure of the next agreement when the first was up.

While the letter never explicitly mentions the agreement between the two governments, it hangs heavy over the discussion.

After all, the city has received substantial pressure to bow out of the Joint Office and no longer give its annual tens of millions of dollars to the office—so if the county doesn’t agree to the demands, it could give the city an easy out from renewing the agreement come June 2023.

Ryan and Wheeler signed off by writing: “Thank you for considering our offer to renew our County and City partnership to better address the humanitarian crisis of surging houselessness, mental illness, and drug addiction.”

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