As County Gives No Hint of Funding Wheeler’s Encampments, City Council Will Vote on Wednesday to Go It Alone

The mayor says the $27 million he’s requested would fund one year of operating costs for three of the six campsites.

TINY STEPS: A homeless village being constructed on Naito Parkway in downtown Portland. (Blake Benard)

This week, Portland will begin setting aside money for an ambitious plan to end street camping.

Last Thursday, the Portland City Council narrowly failed to immediately approve a $27 million “down payment” for the massive sanctioned encampments Mayor Ted Wheeler intends to build with the end goal of banning unsanctioned camping citywide within the next two years.

The council will vote again next Wednesday, and it’s all but guaranteed to pass.

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty was the lone “no” vote against the investment, meaning the council could not pass it as an emergency ordinance. Such an ordinance needs unanimous approval from all five council members.

Wheeler said the $27 million would fund site acquisition, construction costs for sites, and one year of operating costs for three of six camps, each with the capacity of to 250 people.

For the third time in recent weeks since the City Council approved the encampments, councilors last Thursday were scorched by testimony from opponents who said the encampments were cruel, inhumane and fiscally irresponsible.

So many speakers went over their allotted speaking time that Wheeler eventually cleared council chambers about an hour into testimony.

While the $27 million is a start, the city would have to secure a significantly higher amount of money to build and operate the sites. It’s looking at state, regional and local dollars to fill the gaps—though nothing has been secured yet, and the city’s requests to Multnomah County have gone nowhere.

Last Wednesday, WW reported that the mayor’s office requested $21 million from Multnomah County for the encampments. The mayor’s office is eyeing a chunk of surplus funds from a regional homeless tax that went unused by the county in the first fiscal year. County Chair Deborah Kafoury gave no indication in a response to WW’s questions she would fund the $21 million request.

Meanwhile, during its Thursday meeting, the City Council voted to withhold $8 million in Joint Office of Homeless Services funding from next year’s budget unless Multnomah County allocates $15 million for rent assistance and eviction legal defense in December.

Both the county and city pool money into the Joint Office to combat homelessness. But the relationship between the two governments has frayed over the spending priorities of the office, whose budget is largely directed by Kafoury.

Those tensions appear to have reached a tipping point in recent weeks. The city, in various funding demands to the county over its sanctioned encampments, has made it clear: fund what we want you to fund, or we’ll pull our funding from the Joint Office. Last week signaled that the city is following through on its warnings, albeit with only a small chunk of withheld money.

While Kafoury has proved unreceptive, Chair-elect Jessica Vega Pederson has expressed support for Wheeler’s plans—though she hasn’t pledged she would specifically provide county funding for it once she’s at the helm.

Gov.-elect Tina Kotek, too, has signaled alliance with the mayor.

“Both committed to working productively with my office and our entire City Council on these and other priorities,” Wheeler said Thursday of his recent meetup with the two incoming elected officials.

The mayor’s office tells WW it’s looking at contracted operators for the future encampments both locally and regionally. One group it is eyeing: Urban Alchemy, which manages various encampments along the West Coast, including in San Fransisco.

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