Throughout August, Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson has negotiated with the operators of the Bybee Lakes Hope Center, the 175-bed homeless shelter at the former Wapato Jail in North Portland, to offer it a funding lifeline that the organization says it needs in order to keep its doors open through the end of the year.
But records suggest the county and the shelter’s governing organization, the nonprofit Helping Hands, appear to be moving closer to a deal but are still a distance apart. Vega Pederson has offered Bybee $808,000 on condition that it hire a third party to perform a financial audit of the organization. Bybee’s board, according to the chair’s office, most recently said it needs at least $1.5 million from the county to sustain operations through the end of the year.
Even so, Vega Pederson told WW on Friday that conversations were ongoing and that the two parties had a “fruitful” conversation on Thursday.
“I am in close touch with key decision-makers at the organization, and we are in talks to determine the best next steps,” Vega Pederson said in a statement. “I am open to working closely with them to reach an agreement to provide Helping Hands the baseline they need while also carefully reviewing and considering their longer-term finances and appropriate stewardship of taxpayer dollars.”
Nick Troxel, board chair of Helping Hands, concurred. “I am remaining hopeful,” Troxel says. (He declined to state the board’s latest funding request, citing ongoing negotiations, but the chair’s office says the latest ask is $1.5 million.)
But records obtained by WW suggest the month of haggling between the chair and the organization has been characterized by a series of requests and counteroffers that remain stubbornly incongruent.
The Helping Hands board of directors first asked the county for $5 million to sustain operations earlier this month. Sometime in mid-August, the chair’s office offered Helping Hands a little over $808,000—well below the organization’s original request.
On Aug. 23, the Helping Hands board sent a letter to Vega Pederson chief of staff Chris Fick and Joint Office of Homeless Services director Dan Field, writing that the offer fell short of what the organization needed to keep Bybee open.
“Your proposal to pay $808,000 in early September is not enough for us to sustain our operations and recover from the deficits we have incurred serving the county since 2020 without any financial support whatsoever from the county,” the email read. “We have literally emptied our accounts everywhere to support our operations at Bybee Lakes. Without absolute certainty of additional support by midwinter, the proposed $808,000 will merely delay the date upon which we will have no alternative but to close Bybee Lakes as we work to save our operations in Clatsop, Lincoln, Tillamook, and Yamhill counties.” (Helping Hands is an umbrella organization that operates another 10 shelter facilities, mostly in rural towns, across the state.)
In a subsequent letter to Fick on Aug. 25, Bybee Lakes board chair Jerry Walker wrote that the board had amended its $5 million request from the county down to $2.5 million.
“This amount is enough for us to sustain operations at Bybee Lakes from September 2023 through March 31, 2024,” Walker wrote. “The board is aware that you, Dan Field, and your colleagues are working to establish a mechanism for us and other providers to obtain long-term funding. We are keen to assist in this process and hopeful about a good outcome. However, the risk that your new system will not be in place and disbursing funds by year-end is existential to Bybee Lakes.”
Walker wrote that the $2.5 million would sustain operations of the existing 175 beds at Bybee, but would fall short of funding another 100 shelter beds that the center has room for. That, Walker wrote, would take the total needed to $5 million. Walker also wrote that Bybee is set to run out of operating funds in mid-September, so the county would need to give the facility an immediate $500,000 “cash infusion” by then if Bybee is to keep its doors open.
Walker also warned the chair’s office that stipulations placed on the county funding could limit Bybee’s ability to accept the offer. “If the award from the county comes with a requirement that we raise $X,XXX during the period of the award, we will not be able to accept because there is no assurance besides our promise of our best efforts that we will be able to satisfy the requirement,” Walker wrote. “Frankly, many of our donors don’t understand why governments are not paying for what they believe is an essential public function.”
Prominent Portland developer Jordan Schnitzer purchased the never-used Wapato Jail from Multnomah County in 2018 and then leased it to Helping Hands—founded by formerly homeless Alan Evans—in 2020. It’s worth noting that when Bybee Lakes first opened in the fall of 2020, buoyed by anonymous private donors, its leaders pledged the center would need no public funding. But on multiple occasions over the past three years, Bybee leadership has warned that private donations are insufficient to keep the center operational—and has asked the city, county and state for money.
Vega Pederson tells WW that the latest ask from Bybee is for $1.5 million for the remainder of the year, with the possibility of more funding after that. She made it clear to her colleagues at a meeting of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday that she had added contingencies to her $808,000 offer to Bybee. Specifically, Vega Pederson asked for financial transparency.
“There’s an ask for them to meet regularly with our finance folks around what they’re doing, and having a third party come in to do an assessment of their financial and operational picture and have a report back to the [county board] by Dec. 31 of this year,” Vega Pederson explained. “So we have a chance to see where they’re at financially.”
Helping Hands appears to have balked, again, at the chair’s $808,000 offer since the Tuesday meeting.
In an Aug. 29 letter to Bybee’s board, the chair once again made her $808,000 offer to sustain Bybee operations until the end of the year.
“I want to reiterate my commitment to this unprecedented offer of support and assistance,” Vega Pederson wrote to Bybee’s board. “However, the county needs to be a good steward of taxpayer dollars, and to do that our offer requires that Bybee Lakes engage a third-party consultant to provide independent assessments of Helping Hands’ current financial and operational situation and develop recommendations for the long-term sustainability of the organization by December 31, 2023 in order to be eligible for additional county funding.”
In a Friday statement to WW, Vega Pederson wrote that Bybee leadership has been “very open to this requirement.”
Vega Pederson would need a majority vote by her colleagues on the board of commissioners to provide Bybee the $808,000 in funding.
In recent weeks, three other members of the board have expressed support for funding Bybee on a longer-term basis—and in an amount much larger than the $808,000 that’s been offered by the chair.
“I’ve already put a proposal on the table to provide significantly greater funding for Bybee, not only to restore beds but also to expand capacity,” says Commissioner Julia Brim-Edwards. “And that should be a discussion of the whole commission.” Commissioner Sharon Meieran says she was “surprised by the chair’s comments to the board [on Tuesday] when they seemed out of step with what Bybee Lakes had been describing in terms of their needs.”