Wheeler Fishes for $21 Million in County Funding for Sanctioned Camps but Gets No Bite Yet

The mayor is getting specific with his asks from the county. The county isn’t getting specific about its commitment—or lack thereof.

St. Johns Village Opening Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury speaks at the opening of St. Johns Village, as Mayor Ted Wheeler looks on. (Wesley Lapointe) (Wesley Lapointe)

Last week, the office of Mayor Ted Wheeler sent a spreadsheet of financial requests totaling $21 million to Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury. The pot of money he’s eyeing: a $28.6 million chunk of one-time homelessness funds the county could allocate in the coming weeks.

The laundry list of requests are part of the mayor’s funding scheme to set up six 250-capacity sanctioned camps with the end goal of banning street camping across the city within two years. (His logic: Once the city has places to send people for the night, it can sweep them from sidewalks without legal peril.)

So far, his plan to set up camps and ban camping, which got approval from all but one of his fellow City Council members earlier this month, is entirely unfunded. That’s where Kafoury comes in.

Wheeler proposed that the county spend $15 million on the sites’ operating costs, including meals and a daily snack, around-the-clock contracted management, case management, bathrooms and laundry, sleeping bags and storage for personal belongings; he asked that it spend $4 million on site development and setting up necessary infrastructure like water and sewage hookups; and he asked for $750,000 to fund security guards for surrounding businesses and neighborhoods.

In total, the requests add up to $21 million. The city listed its own funding contribution as $30 million; Wheeler is asking the City Council to approve $27 million of that in this Thursday’s fall budget monitoring process. City Hall sources tell WW he’s likely to get at least the three votes needed to approve it.

The mayor’s request that the county help fund the camps has gotten little traction with Kafoury in the past month.

The mayor first asked for her assistance in October, when he and City Commissioner Dan Ryan requested that she fund a number of homelessness projects, including the sanctioned camps. Kafoury brushed it off.

Underpinning that letter was the uncertain future of the Joint Office of Homeless Services, which is a source of friction between the city and county. Both governments pool money into the office to combat homelessness, but the county chair controls how the office spends its dollars. The city has long wanted the Joint Office to spend a larger share of its budget on shelters. (This year’s budget is $255 million.) Kafoury’s been unreceptive.

That tension means the city is flirting with pulling out of the Joint Office before its contract is set to renew this summer and taking its $45 million annual contribution elsewhere.

City officials see the county’s decision whether to fund the campsites using a portion of the $28 million as a litmus test for whether the chair would ever fund the city’s camps. After all, it’s the first pot of county money that’s become available for allocation since the city courted the county last month for support.

At a Tuesday meeting of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, a list of priorities for the $28 million did not include the city’s camps.

Kafoury didn’t tell WW directly that she’s not interested in funding the city’s requests, but spokesman Denis Theriault says the chair and Joint Office’s “top priority” for the one-time funds is “preserving its ongoing work” by opening additional shelter beds, offering rent assistance, and moving people into permanent housing.

“The next step is for the entire board to deliberate and follow its public process, and vote in the coming weeks on whether and how to invest those one-time-only funds,” Theriault says.

Kafoury has historically scoffed at ambitious shelter plans leaked from the mayor’s office. She called Commissioner Dan Ryan’s six safe rest villages—of which only one has been opened after a year—a “back of the napkin sales pitch” last spring when WW first reported on the plan. She was subsequently unimpressed by a plan laid out by mayoral aide Sam Adams earlier this year to build massive camps, ban camping along highways and near schools, and end unsanctioned camping.

Many others scoffed at that plan. But over the past year, the mayor’s office has executed most aspects of Adams’ plan in piecemeal fashion.

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